Baroque buff Henry Litwhiler shines rare appreciation on the elegance of Ohio-based group Les Délices.
Saturday’s concert, entitled “Myths & Allegories,” came as part of Miller Theatre’s “Early Music” series, which speaks volumes about the Theatre’s narrow sense of time. It was undoubtedly only with great difficulty that the Theatre capped the series with the baroque instead of extending it through the Ford presidency.
Of course, if the music is coming from after 1600 and before 1970, it had better be obscure. Bach may be permitted only with special lensing, and if we’re going to humor the 1700s there had better be a more-than-tenuous connection to a still-more-distant past. Thus we find ourselves with “Myths & Allegories,” a token program of baroque, graced by such household names as Jean-Féry Rebel, François Chauvon, Thomas-Louis Bourgeois, and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, and tied together by a concept, like any good modern program.
Mercifully, this concept was a concrete one: the story of Ulysses, “with a focus on a love triangle between the witch Circe, Ulysses, and his wife Penelope.” The link between the works in the program and the concept was at times tenuous, but that might be expected when one limits oneself to composers who lack substantive Wikipedia articles yet still produced pieces worth listening to.
Intentionally selecting such obscure composers, the group no doubt understood, carries with it the risk of seeming to put on airs. And whereas well-known composers have had their complete works picked apart by scholars, their pieces practically ranked by the global musical community, Friday’s repertoire was relatively untested, and consequently demanded that the audience—not music critics—answer the question: Is this worth listening to?
To my mind, the answer in each case was a surprising yes. It’s probably reductive to say that Les Délices selects obscure works for the same reason that your third-favorite WBAR show doesn’t play music you can find on iTunes. A group of their caliber and talent probably has higher aims in mind than winning the great race to obscurity.
Still, there is something beautiful in performing a piece many might have called dead, in giving not just a work but a person another shot at expression. We might reasonably question the artistic merits of Rebel or Chauvon—competence is a weak substitute for innovation, in the eyes of history—but there’s something undeniably romantic about preserving a labor that may have carried some significance for some people at some point.
But Les Délices went further. In Friday’s performance, the group bathed these rarely-heard pieces not only in the honor of (brilliant) performance but in context. By using each work as a step in the Odyssey‘s journey, Les Délices gave each piece meaning beyond its original intentions and in doing so joined the original composers in their creation. Even if the highly respectable technical abilities of the group are set aside, witnessing such a feat should fill anyone with awe.
Modern Frankensteins via Miller Theatre