Sunday, January 29, 2012

Croissant Français: An Internal Critique

On Thursday, I took part in the end of semester project for the early music department at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, a concert of French baroque music entitled Croissant Français. The program featured movements from Lully's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Charpentier's Sonate à huit, a Boismortier chamber concerto, Saint-Colombe's Concert "Tombeau Les Regrets", and Rebel's Les caractères de la dance. It was quite a large project, involving some 22 performers from both within and outside of the university, and masterminded by the newest addition to the Mozarteum's early music department, the brilliant gamba player Vittorio Ghielmi.

Let me begin by saying that the concert, as a whole, was an overwhelming success. The audience enjoyed it very much, everything came off without any major hitches, and we even managed enough applause to get to our encore piece, the entrance of Les Sauvages from Rameau's Les Indes galantes. But as a performer, it was clear that many (including myself) were not as happy as they could have been about the final result. I don't wish to belittle the achievement of getting this concert together in any way, but I think there are lessons to be learned from the way the project was handled, and I think it would be useful to anyone attempting a project of a similar scale to discuss some of the issues involved.

First, and most obviously, all of the rehearsals were bunched up into the three days before the performance. The overall amount of rehearsal time was pretty good - we really did use the whole days - but there was no time to consolidate what we had rehearsed, so many of us went into the performance very uncertain of which edits were correct, or at least which ones we actually had under our fingers. I think it's very important, where possible, to spread the rehearsals out, at least with a day between each one when doing full-day rehearsals, so that everything has time to settle.

Of course, that's easy to say, and not necessarily easy to do. Vittorio is constantly travelling, teaching and playing in different cities, and can't always commit to longer rehearsal periods. In this situation, perhaps some preliminary rehearsals could be delegated to an advanced student, not necessarily to work on the nitty-gritty details, but to at least work through the overall shapes of the pieces with some general instructions. With the exception of the Rebel in this instance, which is really all about the details, I think this could have saved a lot of time and left us feeling much more comfortable on the day. And, of course, it would be good experience for the students!

There was also an issue with differing understandings of the style. French music creates possibly more arguments among early musicians than the music of any other nation when it comes to interpretation. The information provided from the period can be both vague and contradictory, and sometimes seem completely irrelevant - as in several movement of the Charpentier, which seem far more Italian than French in most respects. But the bigger problem in this instance was the number of students who really knew nothing about French style at all, apart from a vague idea about inégale (usually too far on he pointed side, rather than a relaxed swing), and the overture-style over-dotting.

The solution? Well, as I discussed with Dorothee Oberlinger, the head of the department, we really need to have seminars on aspects of style associated with these projects, so that everyone involved has at least a certain minimum level of understanding going into them. Perhaps some easy, helpful readings and recordings should also be recommended, or dispersed by email. We did have a workshop with a French historical dancer in December, but that really only looked at how to approach dance movements, and even then it often seemed very vague as to how we should associate it with the music.

Of course, there will always be some disputes - having written my Honours thesis on rhetoric in French baroque music, I often disagreed with Vittorio's interpretations, based on findings from my own research. And perhaps with more time, some of these alternative interpretations could have been discussed. As it was, I had to content myself with knowing that there was not enough time to argue these finer points, and just get on with the job. In professional life, one gets used to this. But in an educational setting, it seems to me that having the extra time to do this really could be to the benefit of everyone involved.

Finally, I should mention the necessity of maintaining a goal-focussed approach in rehearsals. This is the only criticism I really must level at Vittorio. Often, we would endeavour to work on a small, specific section, but would end up just rolling on halfway through the piece, wasting valuable time that really needed to be spent on getting those individual sections right, before they all got pieced together. It's not that there's anything wrong with just playing through - indeed, it's a necessity for having a good sense of the piece, and being able to play the whole comfortably - but in a situation with limited time, it is important to know what you are working on, to get it to a level you're happy with, then move on.

This time issue also ends up creating other problems: rehearsals on particular works going well over time, people hanging around for ages waiting their turn to play, not enough rehearsal on works scheduled for later in the rehearsal period (the Charpentier and Boismortier were really neglected, and it showed in performance), and general frustration and exhaustion from both the players and the conductor. Clearly structured, focussed rehearsals are really important in any project, but particularly with this many players involved!

One more thing: the biggest musical issue in rehearsal was, in my opinion, everyone staying in time with each other. Inégale and typically French cross-rhythms can make timing very difficult, but it also means it's incredibly important. Vittorio recognised this - we talked a lot about it, and he got rather riled up about it at times - but I think he could have gone further in making the beat clear. Why not bring in a drum? Or, even better, bring in a Lully-esque staff, to keep time on the floor! If they needed it then, when the style was so well known to them, how is it that we think we can do without it now? We needed that strong beat that we could actually hear - conducting for this kind of music can be very unclear!

But if you do get such a staff, do be careful not to stab yourself in the foot. We don't want you ending up like Lully, do we?

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