Unlike his competitor, the opportunistic Jean-Baptiste Lully, French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1645-1704) never obtained a post at Louis XIV's extravagant Versailles palace. But Charpentier flourished under the generous patronage of the lesser aristocracy in Paris.
Last night the Folger Consort performed Charpentier's Christmas drama, the motet "In Nativitatem Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Canticum," as part of its festive "French Noel" at the Folger's Elizabethan Theatre. Set for instruments and a vocal quartet (soprano Rosa Lamoreaux, countertenor Drew Minter, tenor Robert Petillo and baritone Peter Becker), Charpentier's piece eludes definition. His open-ended imagination resulted in a kaleidoscopic effusion of Italianate concerto textures, along with the "grand manner" and melodic embroidery of the French persuasion. He also indulged in harmonic twists and solo recits that straddle the spheres of spoken declamation and aria.
Except for "Ballet" by the German Michael Praetorius, the rest of the program centered on sacred and secular fare of the French Renaissance and baroque periods, mostly by French court composers. Again the Consort demonstrated its distinctive approach to early music. The ensemble unfurled the splendors of this repertoire--whether pastoral, rustic or celebratory in tone--with ample rhythmic buoyancy and crystalline textures. Everything was done with impeccable facility and a generous amount of spirit, the voices and instruments gracefully interacting.
Ensemble Galilei, a six-woman group dedicated to Celtic and early music, presented a concert of traditional melodies of the solstice season, some with updated arrangements, at Strathmore Hall Thursday evening. Noels from early Renaissance Europe opened the program. Ensemble leader Carolyn Anderson Surrick coaxed sonorous tones from a viola da gamba, an instrument a tad exotic for audiences familiar only with the 19th-century orchestra.
The variety of instruments used by the musicians obtained unusual tonal diversity and atmosphere. They played cymbals the size of doll's teacups, an "ocean drum" (a bodhran with a layer of metal beads on the inside of the drumhead), spoons, polished bones and oboe. Of course, they also needed the usual Celtic accouterments--fiddles, recorders, harp and the droning uilleann pipes. Harpist Sue Richards's "November Woods" and "Fire in the Hearth" issued a quiet meditative interlude amid the brisk carols from the Basque, Welsh, Scottish and other Celtic homelands.
Much of the program tinkered with traditional arrangements, especially percussionist Jan Hagiwara's stripped-down "Good King Wenceslas" with a beat approaching that of reggae. "The Bell Carol" featured inventive parts for plucked strings and sleigh bells, and "Joy to the World" was given a Celtic twist to conclude the program.
--L. Peat O'Neil