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The French Music Festival at Noontime opens in the 17th and 18th centuries

1704 portrait of Marin Marais holding a viola da gamba
by Andre Bouys, from Wikipedia (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

January is French Music Festival month in the Noontime Concerts™ recital series (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. This afternoon the Festival began with one of two concerts that will focus on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (The other concert will take place on January 21.) The performers were gamba players Farley Pearce and John Dornenburg and harpsichordist Yuko Tanaka.

One might describe the program as one of retrospective and prospective influences. The final work was a six-movement suite in D major by Marin Marais composed in 1711. Marais tends to be recognized as France’s most famous gamba player, and that recognition is enhanced by his reputation as a composer. However, for the first part of the program, Pearce and Dornenburg prepared compositions by Marais’ teacher, Jean de Sainte-Colombe and one of his students, Charles Dollé. While these piece were not played in chronological order (the program began with Dollé), the concert, as a whole, provided an excellent introduction to how approaches to the expressiveness of the gamba changed over the course of about a century. In addition, Tanaka performed two selections from François Couperin’s seventeenth suite (ordre) from his third book of keyboard compositions, published in 1722.

With the exception of the final movement of the Marais suite, a charivari depicting raucous wedding guests outside the couple’s bedroom trying to disrupt their first night of carnal knowledge, and the depiction of a carillon at the end of the Dollé suite, this was a relatively low-key affair. The gamba does not have a particularly strong sound, so it fares best in intimate settings with relatively quiet passages. Sainte-Colombe’s “Le Trembleur” movement is an exquisite study in tremolo technique, all executed with a hushed intensity. Old St. Mary’s did not have the best acoustics for this repertoire, but the trio did its best to fit their techniques to the setting. The result was an informative account of inventiveness from a period of French music history that does not always get the attention it deserves.

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