Les Violons du Roy
Founded in 1984, the Québec-based chamber orchestra Les Violons du Roy derived its name from Les Vingt-quatre Violons du Roy, the orchestra that filled the Palace of Versailles with music for 135 years, from 1626 to 1761, through the reigns of three French monarchs, Louis XIII, Louis XIV, and Louis XV. This modern “tribute band” opened its concert last Sunday at the Lensic with selections from Les Boréades by Jean-Philippe Rameau, the final opera of the composer most associated with the last of those kings. Rameau was the most daring orchestral colorist of the late Baroque, and the orchestra — comprising two oboes, a bassoon, and two horns, in addition to strings — rendered his music in vivid hues. These musicians adopt many tenets of period style, but they play on modern instruments (although the string players use period-style bows). This compromise allows greater breadth in interpretation than period instruments might impose, but the players use these possibilities selectively and tastefully, always to convincing musical effect. Their playing was at its most luscious in the opera’s Act IV entree, which floated dreamily in the air, much in contrast to the rough vigor of the surrounding fast movements.
The members of the orchestra displayed a level of ensemble sensitivity one associates more often with chamber music, but that is not to imply that the conducting was at all ancillary. Since the group’s founder and music director, Bernard Labadie, is taking the season off to tend to health concerns (we wish him well), the podium for this tour was entrusted to associate conductor Mathieu Lussier, who emanated elegance, imagination, and clarity. A curiosity was that he held his baton in his left hand, the opposite of standard conducting practice; even most left-handed conductors adapt to right-handed baton technique, although there’s no musical argument that says one way is better than the other. Lussier highlighted emotional extremes and violent contrasts in Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, an exemplar of the “Sturm und Drang” methods the composer explored in the years surrounding 1770. Horns added ominous density in one phrase, and the texture might suddenly transform to delicate transparency in the next. In the finale of this “Farewell” Symphony, Haydn has his musicians stand up and leave the stage a few at a time, a gesture originally intended to convince their princely patron to grant them some time off and still a charming and amusing effect today.
Pianist Marc-André Hamelin is most famous as an interpreter of highoctane virtuoso pieces from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but here he was featured in two works of more translucent Classicism. Mozart’s Concert-Rondo in A major (K. 386), a pleasant but slight entry in that composer’s catalog, sounded a bit fussy, the soloist sometimes emphasizing minutiae at the expense of overall flow. Haydn’s well-known D-major Piano Concerto made more impact, again with the soloist and orchestra showing detailed polish. The lengthy cadenza Hamelin offered in the slow movement prettily recalled the sort of high-pitched “music-box” writing some of the later barnstormers used as a special effect, and the finale raced along as fast as I have ever heard it — perhaps even faster. The result led to a few moments that verged on hysteria without quite losing control, and the whole thing was great fun.