You haven't heard everything until you have heard a viola da gamba moaning in terror, trembling in apprehension, screaming a high, thin wail of pure agony. It did all these things last night and will repeat them tonight in the Smithsonian's Hall of Musical Instruments as part of the Smithsonian Chamber Players' first baroque program of the season: "French Baroque Music From Le Grand Sie cle."
The gamba is normally a quiet, unobtrusive old geezer that buzzes and bumbles along in the bass line of baroque music, reinforcing the harpsichord's left-hand notes. By the 18th century, it was a musical dinosaur, slow-moving and gentle of speech; perhaps that is why it was displaced by the cello. But when the music is composed by a master of the instrument, the gamba can take on a new, strange and vivid life.
One such master was Marin Marais (1656-1728), a gamba virtuoso and a composer with a delightfully quirky imagination. His Le tableau de l'ope'ration de la taille ("Gall Bladder Operation") was not the most beautiful music on the program, but it was certainly the most intensely pictorial and emotionally expressive, recalling vividly a time when anesthesia was unknown. It would hardly have been intelligible, even in Kenneth Slowik's adept performance, without some verbal assistance, but that was provided by Marcus Overton, reading (from an archaic lectern with two candles) the composer's short descriptions: "Tying down the arms and legs with silk cords," to illustrate a smooth, silken melody; "The patient faints"; and "Blood flows," all with appropriately graphic music.
Marais also composed the program's opening work, a highly expressive "Little Opera" for instruments called "La Gamme" ("The Scale") that uses the order of notes in the scale as its principle of arrangement. More serious and substantial music was heard in Rameau's first Pie ce de clavecin en concerts and Franc,ois Couperin's "La Pie'montoise" from Les Nations.
James Weaver gave his usual brilliant, reliable performance on the harpsichord, with stylish playing by flutist Christopher Krueger, violinist Nancy Wilson and guest artist Konrad Jungha nel playing the theorbo or bass lute. Oboist Stephen Hammer's performance in the Couperin had a warm, rounded tone and delicacy of phrasing that made one hope for more oboe music in later programs.