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Sunday, November 25, 2018

Concert Review: Never Break the Chain

Emanuelle Haïm debuts with the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Emanuelle Haïm in flight.
Photo © Askonas Holt
Say the words "baroque music" and a couple of inevitable stereotypes spring to mind. One might be a covey of court musicians, tweetling elaborate fugues for the enjoyment of mincing nobles. Another might be period performance wonks gathered in rehearsal spaces, wrestling with "authentic" wooden instruments and catgut strings in a quest to discover what music sounded like three hundred years ago.

The New York Philharmonic's subscription concerts last week fell somewhere between these two images. It marked the orchestra debut of Emanuelle Haïm, the French conductor and performance expert who rose to fame with her own ensemble Le Concert D'Astree. She brought a program of Handel and Rameau, and led the proceedings either from a harpsichord that sat with its keyboard facing the audience, or with her hands, moving like a dancer before the diminished orchestral force.

Ms. Haïm did a smart thing with programming the all-Handel first half of the concert. By starting with one of the composer's Concerto Grossi (the third) she had the Philharmonic players stripped down to their bare essentials. There was a small string section with two double basses and a group of soloists seated around Ms. Haïm. A second harpsichord supplanted the sound from stage left, maintaining the rhythmic presence of the instrument in the moments when the conductor preferred to stand up and lead. The playing was delicate yet muscular, old-fashioned in its use of modern instruments.

A soloist was added for the Water Music No. 3, recordist Sébastien Marq. Mr. Marq, a tall, shambling figure, wielded his vertical flute with a skill and delicacy that spoke volumes of its noble origins. A member of Les Arts Florissants, the baroque orchestra founded by Ms Haïm's mentor William Christie, Mr. Marq's agile soloing acted as a narrator through the pompous passages of this work, which was crafted as incidental music for a floating party on the Thames arranged by the composer's patron, George I of the House of Hanover.

More horns and trumpets were added for Water Music No. 1. (It's not known at what length or in what order Handel's music was performed during George's grand day out on the water. These concerts generally followed the organization used by musicologists of the various sections.) However, in this movement the modern instruments sounded particularly out of place. Perhaps the greatest disservice was done to the Philharmonic horn players. Their modern instruments, with their complicated valve systems and wider bore than an 18th century style natural horn, sounded clumsy and watery when it was time for their solo passages.

There is a world of difference between the German Handel, who found his fortune composing Italian opera and oratorio, and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Known as a theorist and master of harmony, Rameau also wrote operas in a genre known as tragedie-lyrique, falling between Lully and Gluck on the timeline of French music. His music is luxurious, carefully constructed and redolent of the height of the French baroque and the gilded age of Louis XIV. The second among these was Dardanus, a wild story of sense, sensibility and sea monsters that stretched the imaginations and the abilities of opera production to the absolute limit.

For this concert, Dardanus was reorganized into a series of instrumental passages, preserving some of the opera's narrative flow while allowing the audience to sample the wonders of Rameau's music. This included a March of Warriors with a startling effect: the shaking and dropping of a chain by percussionist Daniel Druckman as his counterpart banged away on a pair of Renaissance-style drums. Other effects included the use of finger cymbals and tambourine, and Ms. Haïm's agile conducting, which seemed to originate more in the ballet and less in the conservatoire.

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