French Baroque music meets Indian Classical Dance

French Baroque music meets Indian Classical Dance
BBC Singers, Academy of Ancient Music, Sofi Jeannin
Sanskriti UK & Ankh Dance
Milton Court, 19 October 2018

Lully: Te Deum 
Rameau: In convertendo Dominus;
extracts from 
Les Indes galantes, Les fêtes d’Hébé Castor et Pollux 

In what was a rather brave bit of programming for a live BBC Radio 3 broadcast, the BBC Singers and the Academy of Music, directed by Sofi Jeannin, the new Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers, presented an evening of French Baroque music, the second half of which was accompanied by two contrasting forms of Indian dance. The first half was of liturgical pieces, starting with Lully’s jubilant 1677 setting of the Te Deum. This was first heard at Fontainebleau and later became the piece that led to Lully’s death after he stabbed himself in the foot with his conducting baton during Chapel Royal celebrations for the Sun King’s recovery from surgery – surgery that Lully decided, fatally, to refuse. No such calamity occurred here as Sofi Jeannin demonstrated her commendably straightforward style of conducting, her focus clearly on the music itself rather than on any sense of self-aggrandisement. She coped well with the complications of this particular occasion, which included a late start after an overrun of the previous Radio 3 show, and complicated coordination between dances, singers, instrumentalists, a BBC announcer and the paraphernalia of a live BBC broadcast. 

Lully’s use of instrumental and vocal colour was evident from the start, the trumpets answered delicate strings before the opening tenor solo. Lully varies the structure of his chorus, using a semi-chorus, divided vocal forces (sometimes arranged her as an outer and inner choir) and contributions from six solo singers. The BBC Singers are an extraordinary group of full-time professional vocalists who are required to cover a vast repertoire. Although there were occasions when their obvious lack of specialism in French Baroque vocal tradition was evident, particularly in the generally rather too vibrant solo voices, their chorus singing was impressive. No such observations about specialism could be aimed at the Academy of Ancient Music, whose grasp of French Baroque period style is outstanding, in this piece notably from violinists Bojan Čičić and Rebecca Livermore, cellist Joseph Crouch, David Miller, theorbo, and organist Alistair Ross.

The trumpets and timpani were replaced by flutes, oboes and bassoon (and the organ for a harpsichord) for Rameau’s In convertendo Dominus, composed around 1712 and revised in 1751. The six soloists included one of the best of the evening, soprano Rebecca Lea, in her singing of the verse Laudate nomen Dei. The delicate opening for the distinctively French sound of flutes and strings led to Christopher Bowen sensitive singing of the opening verse. The piece ended with a delicately sinuous fugue, that builds to a grand climax. The wind consort of Hannah McLaughlin and Sarah Humphries, oboes, and Ursula Leveaux, bassoon made significant contributions.

The interval (shorter than usual, for BBC purposes) was followed by sequences of extracts from Rameau operas, accompanied by dance curated by Akademi South Asian Dance UK and performed by Sanskriti UK & Ankh Dance, the former in what to me at least seemed to be a more traditional Bharatanatyam South Indian dance with the distinctive use of hand and finger gestures, the latter in a more flowing style with swirling white clothes adding to the sense of movement. I don’t know what the Radio 3 audience must have made of the extraneous noises of the dancers’ feet (you can hear for yourself here for the next couple of weeks or so), but the visual impact for those in the audience was immense.

BBC Singers_19 Oct_CR_BBC Mark Allan_5.JPGSanskriti UK

Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, despite its title, does not include any reference to India, but it based on influence from native America and the Ottoman Empire. Despite that, the two styles of South Indian dance worked extremely well with that, and the Les fêtes d’Hébé and Castor et Pollux, the first danced by Sanskriti UK, the latter two by Ankh Dance. Of course, French opera was noted for its integration of dance, and the choreographers of these dances paid considerable respect to Rameau’s music, each dance clearly reflecting the staging concept of the extracts. 

BBC Singers_19 Oct_CR_BBC Mark Allan_6.JPGAnkh Dance

Although there were many soloists drawn from the BBC Singers during the operatic extracts, as well as the chorus itself, the focus was rather more on the Academy of Ancient Music for their many tambourine-supported instrumental dance sequences and vocal accompaniments, ranging from the ‘raging of the impetuous gales and the eloquence of the Song of the Naiad. Sofi Jeannin set realistic speeds and coped well with the complications of the performance. The only slight hiccup came when there was a bit too much of a gap between The Naiads Mortels que le plaisir amène and the ‘subterranean sound’ that is supposed to have disturbed her, had it not followed after a long silence.

Photos: BBC/Mark Allan