Festival d’Ambronay/Festival eemerging: 2018

Vibrations: Cosmos
Festival d’Ambronay/Festival eeemerging
Centre culterel de recontre d’Ambronay
28-30 September 2018

The 39th Festival d’Ambronay saw the conclusion of an annual triptych devoted to the theme of Vibrations, in this case with the subtext of ‘Cosmos’. Spread over four weekends, it was described as “An evocation in music of a cosmos alternately spiritual or material, intimate or grandiose, in-depth or elevation … An evocation of the stars, elements and spirituality, a look at the harmony of man and the universe“. As well as hosting the annual festival, the Centre culterel de recontre d’Ambronay is also the base for the eeemerging project (Emerging European Ensembles), a European Union-wide cooperation project dedicated to the selection, training and promotion of young early music ensembles. It brings together partners from the UK, Latvia, Romania, Slovenia, Italy and Germany in a four-year cooperation project. Alongside festival events, the third weekend of the four-weekend festival was devoted to the ensembles selected for the 2018 eeemerging round, with six young groups of musicians performing, alongside one of the previous eeemerging ensembles and one of the most established groups in recent history. The comparison between the young musicians and some of the more established performers in the festival was of particular interest, leaving me with the view that the latter, with few exceptions, have a lot to learn from the former.

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Friday 28 September

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The first concert of the weekend had the title of Tresors sacrés (Sacred Treasures) and was given by Cappella Mediterranea and the Chamber Choir of Namur, directed by Leonardo García Alarcon. It was devoted to the little-known music of Giovanni Paulo Colonna (1637-95), organist and director of music at Bologna’s massive San Petronio Basilica. He would have known its two famous (and still-existing organs), one dating from 1471, the other from around 1590, positioned on either side of the large choir enclosed within the vast space of the basilica. Colonna was from a family of organ builders, and was one himself, so the presence of these two instruments would have been of particular importance to him. It was from this choir, and with these two organs, that the music of this concert would have been first performed.

The opening 1691 Missa a 5 voix (Mass in E minor) is a spectacular piece, reconstructed for this concert by Ariel Rychter, one of the two organ players for the evening. Unfortunately, they used little continuo ‘box’ organs that were barely audible, a far cry from the powerful sound that the two Bologna organs still produce. Colonna’s ability to compose for large forces was evident from the start, and this interpretation emphasised the powerful elements of the Mass setting, from opening Kyrie, with its quieter central Christe surrounded by emphatic Kyries. The Gloria used similar contrasts between powerful chorus writing to intimate passages for soloists. Curiously, the conductor gave the strong impression that the Mass ended after the Gloria, with inevitable applause while musicians moving around, and one of the soloists walking off and back on again. But there was still the Credo to come, making an odd break in the usual order of a Mass setting where applause is not usually encouraged between liturgical movements. 

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The following three Colonna pieces did not match the grandeur or musical quality of the Mass, and I wondered about the wisdom of programming the Dixit Dominus, Magnificat and, particularly, the rather lacklustre Requiem in a programme that, at 2h40′ ran more than an hour over the predicted time. There were a number of interpretation issues raised in this performance, including the choice of instrumentation from the large orchestra of strings, recorders, cornetts and sackbuts. The two continuo groups positioned on either side of the stage partly replicated the layout of a performance in Bologna, although the spatial effects would have been far more prominent there. I also wondered about Alarcon’s habit of phrasing cadences in a rather mannered way, with a little pause before the final resolution. Rather more curious, given the need to coordinate a large group of musicians, was the decision to put the 5 solo singer behind the conductor’s back. The principal soprano spent most of her time back to back with the conductor, having to twist her head round to even catch a glimpse of his beat. 

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Vocally, the Chamber Choir of Namur were impressive in their chorus moments, and I liked the solo singing of tenor Valerio Contaldo and bass Alejandro Meerapfel. But the vocal star of the show was undoubtedly the outstanding young soprano Julie Roset, still, it seems a student, but demonstrating a remarkable vocal talent. The clarity and purity of her voice ideally suited the music and the acoustic of the Abbey church. Sadly the excellence of Roset’s performance put the singing and, particularly, the behaviour of the second soprano into a particularly poor light. Her look-at-me antics, visually distractingly hand and facial gestures, her inability to stand still while others were singing (frequently adjusting her hair, looking around and swaying back and forth to the music) were both disrespectful and unprofessional.

Saturday 29th September

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The Saturday of the weekend saw the first two of the three eeemerging 2018 concerts, each with two of the selected groups performing a 45′ concert in the small Monteverdi Room, a difficult space to perform in, the lack of ventilation creating problems for instrument tuning and for the comfort of performer and audience. The first group to perform were L’Apothéose, (pictures of all the groups appear below their review) with their programme La Lyre d’Héraclite: Cosmos, Harmonie et Tension dans le BaroqueThe three descriptors of the title were each allocated to a specific Sonata, La Tension allocated to Handel’s HWV 386 Sonata 1, Telemann’s Sonata Prima (TWV 43:A1) representing L’Harmonie, and Bach’s Sonata ‘il soggetto reale’ from the Musical Offering (BWV 1079) offering the order of the cosmos. It was a well thought-out programme, with the two principal soloists Laura Quesada, flute, and Víctor Martinez, violin, balancing well. My only concern was the excessive volume of the cello throughout the concert. Only in the quieter moments of Telemann’s amiable Sonata, where the cello is an equal partner to the violin and flute, was the balance reasonable. 

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They were followed by Improviso and their programme Les Éléments. They gave it the subtitle of Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, and opened, as the title hinted, with their own arrangement of Rebel’s dramatic Les Éléments suite with its crashing chord at the opening of Le Chaos. They featured recorders, violin and cello, but replaced the more usual harpsichord with a theorbo, played by Fatima Lahham, Elin White, Florence Little, and Johan Löfving respectively. It made for a very effective consort sound, with the practical advantage of not having to travel with a harpsichord. As their name suggests, they base their performances on improvisation, most obviously in the suite of dances that followed the Revel. They finished with Telemann’s Sonata en trio (TWV 42:g9), with its distinctive Largo movement where the violin melody is supported by a hypnotic little 7-note arpeggio phrase on the recorder. It’s lively Allegro in the style of a Polish dance. As well as impressive and well-balanced playing, I particularly liked the interaction between the players.

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Two more eeemerging groups appeared in the afternoon, starting with Le Voci Delle Grazie and their programme Entre Terre et Paradis (Between Earth and Paradise). The three singers (Bethany Shepherd and Ilze Grēvele, soprano, and mezzo
Laura Lopes) were accompanied by viola da gamba, triple harp, lute, and harpsichord. The programme included pieces by Rossi, Strozzi, Monteverdi, Agostini, and Luzzaschi. The singers sang with well-matched voices and interacted well with each other and with the audience, reflecting the texts of the songs. With ten pieces, some segueing between pieces would have helped to build a sense of momentum, avoiding lots of applause breaks. 

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The second of the afternoon groups was Rumorum with their programme of music songs from medieval England: Weilawei. They made good use of the space of the small hall and segued several of the pieces together to make for an enticing programme. The principal singer, Grace Newcombe (who also played harp) was joined on occasion by Mara Winter who otherwise played the flute. Jacob Mariani and Félix Verry played guitar and veille. Collectively they produced very attractive sounds, aided by good audience communication. However, as with many period instrument groups, I did wonder whether all of their tuning breaks were strictly necessary.

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Away from the young eeemerging groups, the late afternoon concert in the Abbey church was given by the eight singers of VocesSuavea group that had been part of a previous eeemerging programme.  Their programme, Migrations, L’Europe du Madrigal (Migrations, Europe and the Madrigal). was a comprehensive tour of madrigal composers from around Europe, but with a focus on England, Germany, and Italy. The three groups of pieces reflected different aspects of madrigal texts, most based on the trials and tribulations of love in all its aspects. For several madrigals, they were accompanied by Ori Harmelin on lute, who also played a couple of solos. There were some impressive singers within the group, although not all matched that description. All three sopranos had slight but persistent vibrato in their voices, one much more than the others. This is not always unattractive in itself but, in music of this type, it can so easily affect the consort sound and the stability of harmonies, particularly at cadences when a moment of harmonic repose is, I suggest, preferable. The male singers Dan Dunkelblum, Tobias Wicky and Davide Benetti were very effective, but I was surprised at the antics of the second tenor, whose over-exaggerated facial expressions and ungainly movements were a distraction, particularly in contrast to the calm demeanour of the other singers. I have no idea if he was the official leader of the group (it was founded by baritone Tobias Wicky, and was purported to have no director), but he certainly gave the impression that he thought he was. The most effective pieces were two of the English madrigals, by John Dowland and Thomas Weekles.

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The main Saturday evening concert was given by a group that, apparently, “electrified the audience” in last year’s festival, although I confess I found that rather surprising, based on what I heard. Voce Strumental is a Moscow based orchestra founded by violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky. It was an interesting reflection on musical styles in Moscow and this particular Russian approach to early music performance.  The programme of violin concerts by Telemann, Locatelli, Bach and Vivaldi was clearly popular with the Ambronay audience, but it raised several questions for me. The opening Telemann Concerto for three violins (TWV53:F1) saw Sinkovsky joined by two of his young female pupils, Elena Davydova and Svetlana Ramazanova. Unfortunately, their playing was completely overshadowed by the extraordinarily percussive playing of the double bass player, the frequent noise of this bow crashing into the poor strings being a major distraction throughout the concert. This rather aggressive approach to music making (which included the violin tone of seemed Sinkovsky) rather at odds with the often sensitive music being performed. 

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Other pieces suggested an approach to period performance that was out of step with that practised by most western European orchestras, not least in matters of phrasing, violin bowing and tone production, and speeds – which seemed to be either far too slow or far too fast, with over-extended cadences. Despite a programme of well-known violin concertos, Sinkovsky played from a score throughout – indeed, for much of the evening, he played from two scores, one facing the audience, the other facing the orchestra, switching rather awkwardly from one to the other. One of the more attractive moments came with the Concerto for viola d’amore and lute performed by Mariia Kestinskalaa and Luca Pianco, although I found it hard to relate the edgy tone of the viola d’amore with the gently sensuous sound I am used to from pieces such as Bach’s Johannes-Passion. 

Sinkovsky was off-stage while this was performed, only to return for the final piece transformed into a countertenor soloist for Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus, his tight little hair bun miraculously transformed into flowing locks of hair (partly secured by a hair band) that he spent much of the time flicking back towards where his bun had been. Of the many performance issues, the key one was probably his approach to breathing, which was fairly random and seemed less intended to relate to musical phrasing as for sheer survival. The audience loved it, but I am afraid I didn’t. I do hope that the three female violinists get a chance to study in the west, and to understand the contrasting approach to period instrument performance to that seemingly practised in Moscow.

Sunday 30 September 2018

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Sunday morning saw the third of the eeemerging concerts, starting with El Gran Teatro del Mundo and their programme La Vie est un songe, based on the monologue of Sigismony as expressed in French Baroque opera, with pieces by Lully, Marais, and Campra. Playing music intended for a large orchestra with such small forces would inevitably raise issues, but they coped well with this, helped by an enticing range of instrumental colours from Coline Ormond, violin, Miriam Jorde Hompanera, oboe, and Johanna Bartz, flute supported by a continuo group of gamba, theorbo, and harpsichord, all three of the latter providing occasional percussion from their instruments. Their sequence of pieces was nicely segued, giving a sense of flow. For some reason, the lights in the room were lowered to the extent that it was impossible to read the text of their programme, so I probably lost some of the subtlety of their programme, but visually and musically it was very compelling. 

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The last of the eeemerging groups to perform were Cantoría whose programme, El Fuego explored the dramatic vocal music of the Iberian Renaissance, including Mateo Flecha’s well-known title piece. The four unaccompanied singers (Inés Alonso, Samuel Tapia, Jorge Losana, and Valentín Miralles) built an excellent rapport with the audience, not least through their stage movements and the engaging interaction between the singers. They also displayed exceptional musical and technical skill, with a commendable purity and stability of tone and intonation, making for perfect harmony. Many well-established madrigal groups could learn from singing as pure as this. Their closing anonymous Cancianero de Palacio was, quite literally, a show-stopper, bringing to an end the 2018 eeemerging showcase. It was no surprise that they won the audience prize. 

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After a weekend of excellent concerts by the impressive young musicians of the eeemerging Festival, and rather less than excellent concerts by the more established performers in the Festival evening, it was a relief to finally have a concert that ticked all the boxes, not least in that there was nobody who wanted to be the centre of attention. 

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Les Arts Florissants, regular performers at the Ambronay Festival, returned for their presentation of Les Ténèbres de Gesualdo. Led with commendable restraint by tenor Paul Agnew, the six singers contrasted the extraordinary musical invention of Gesualdo with the austere intonations and plainchant that surrounded Gesualdo’s nine intense madrigal-like Répons, each one a musical gem. It was an extraordinary performance, holding the packed audience spellbound. The traditional extinguishing of candles took place just behind the singers after each of the Répons, and we also had the equally traditional noises off, with four loud off-stage bangs at the start, and the strepitus (great noise) produced by the audience banging their feet on the ground at the end of the Ténèbre, representing the earthquake that followed Christ’s death. The individual Répons explore their text in dramatically intense musical language, changing mood at a whim and a change of word, with harmonies slithering about seemingly at random. How anybody manages to hold such music in their head is beyond me, let alone having the technical ability to actually sing it.

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Performer photos © Bertrand Pichène, others ABW.

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