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Crossing Borders but Often Going Nowhere

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

Ethnic stereotypes were the subject of Wednesday night's concert at the Library of Congress. The perpetrators were the members of Europa Galante, one of a host of charismatic early-music ensembles that gallop about like 17th-century journeymen, bearing their own take on the baroque from one city to another.

Nationalism and ethnic traits are elusive concepts to pin down. The underlying theory of this concert is that the 10 players could assume them like veils, leaving off Frenchness to assume Germanism, and so on. One piece offered an Italian's view of France (the Italian being Vivaldi, who wrote "La Senna Festeggiante" to celebrate the French ambassador to Venice); another, an Englishman's view of Spain (Purcell's, expressed in a suite of incidental music to the Aphra Behn play "Abdelazar, or the Moor's Revenge").

Intriguing enough, on paper. But stereotypes can grow tired. And on Wednesday, the view was distanced through an additional national filter: All of the music was seen from the Italian perspective of the musicians, whose default was a bright but automatic sameness. The distinction between Purcell's Englishness and the Frenchness of Jean-Marie Leclair (in a violin concerto) was as blurred as the ensemble playing in the Purcell. There was something dutiful about the presentation: a school geography lesson.

The group's animating spirit is its founder and leader Fabio Biondi, a violinist; which is exactly the problem. Biondi, the soloist in most of the pieces, projects a world-weariness that bleeds over into his sound, as if he were too urbane to bother with playing cleanly. A musical highlight was Vivaldi's late concerto for viola d'amore and lute, but despite the fine work of the lutenist, Giangiacomo Pinardi, and though Biondi brandished the eccentric viola d'amore -- fitted with an extra set of resonating strings -- with aplomb, his playing was uninspired. One of his tics, observed in previous concerts, is tossing off the end of a piece as if his mind were already on the next one, with a cosmopolitan insouciance more appropriate to the evening's theme than to compelling musical presentation.

The evening concluded with a pasticcio suite assembled by Biondi, called "Les Nations," consisting of short "ethnic" pieces by different European composers of the late 17th and early 18th centuries: an "alla francese" by Galuppi, Campra's "Les Chinois," Telemann's "Les Danoises/Les Angloises." The juxtaposition of short, different works seemed more vital than what had gone before -- with, perhaps, the exhilaration of a traveler who senses that he is almost home.

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