The Sebastians wrap season with a fiddle feast of Lully and friends

Sun May 12, 2024 at 1:28 pm
The Sebastians performed Saturday at Brick Presbyterian Church. Photo: Grace Copeland

Before Beethoven, what we now call classical music was all new music, made for dancing, entertainment, ceremonies, and to play among small groups of friends. The power of Beethoven’s music created the cultural idea of preserving the past and spending time, effort, and money on bringing it out again and again in front of listeners. Many times, one can detect a clear eye toward posteriority, a self-consciousness about future audiences, in music composed from the mid-19th century onward.

Early music is different in that sense; musicians from Medieval times through the 18th century thought about the future differently, if they thought about it at all. Music was made for immediate social and ceremonial means, especially if it was being paid for by royalty. 

That can give it a tremendous sense of life and nowness, as The Sebastians showed with their season-ending concert Saturday at Brick Presbyterian Church.

The program had a narrative title, “24 Violins Across the Alps,” and was a travelogue in the sense of influence and how it spreads. The music centered around Jean-Baptiste Lully, composer for a time to Louis XIV, one of the greatest figures in French Baroque music, and one of the key innovators in classical music history. He led the King’s premiere ensemble, the “24 Violins,” and established the united up or down bow-stroke that is one of the foundational elements of orchestral performance practice since.

Led by Jefrey Grossman at the harpsichord, the Sebastians put together four suites of music that mixed Lully with musicians from the generation that came after who followed his methods. The opening paired Lully’s Overture from his opera Atys with Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in D Major, Op. 6, no. 7, and the music that followed also brought in Marin Marais and Georg Muffat, both students of Lully (the connection with Corelli was more speculative, having to do with the Italian composer’s acquaintance with Muffat).

This was stylish music given robust and thoughtful performances. Though the last measure of Lully’s sound, with the special French method of a variety of precursors to violas at the heart of the ensemble, is impossible to recreate, the Sebastians brought his rich harmonic structures to life. This was more than just coming together for each chord; the ensemble was fluid in the rhythms, the articulation hitting the right balance between accent and lilt.

That was key to the pleasures of the concert, because so much of this music is either specifically dance music or based on such rhythms. There was an insinuating triple-meter pulse that beat throughout the afternoon and that had one imagining couples at court moving in elegant and precise choreography. This was strong even in Marais’ Trios pour le coucher du roi, essentially adult lullabies that had the sensual rise and fall of the breath.

These came in the second suite of music, a subtle and intelligent blend of all the composers, with ballets from Lully’s Les plaisirs de l’ile enchantée to start and end, then sonatas from Corelli and Muffat in the middle. Along with Marias, the sense of respiration in all the phrasing of the slow introductions from Corelli and Muffat, and then the feeling of rising and falling steps in the Allemandes, Gavottes, and the rest, was palpable.

The concert also had a larger rise and fall that doubled the pleasure of the individual pieces. From the overture through the peaks of ballets and short dance movements, the music gradually wound down through Chaconnes and Passacaglias from Lully and Muffat. 

The final section had Lully’s concise, minor-key Passacaille from Armide, following by Muffat’s rich and inventive Passacaglia Grave in G Major. This was the most abstract music of the concert, and as the mood lowered it simultaneously raised the intellectual interest. One last, long expiration through Lully’s Chaconne from Les bourgeois gentilhomme wrapped up the satisfaction of the afternoon.

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