This Saturday, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment (oof, that's a bit of a mouthful, let's stick to OAE for short) and the London Sinfonietta joined together for night of courtly mashup. With their forces united on one stage, their numbers were a staggering... third of what the LPO has on a normal night. Ok, so both groups are small. But hey, bigger isn't always better. The real interest here is the fact that the musical specialties of the respective ensembles are polar opposites. The OAE is London's top early (like pre 1750 or so) music ensemble that doesn't play in a church while the Sinfonietta restricts its repertoire to the past hundred years. One would think that the ornaments of high Baroque and the abrasive harmonies of modernism don't have anything in common. But in their performance, the groups revealed that the very new subconsciously plunders quite a bit from the very old.
The centerpiece of the concert was Stravinsky's suite from the ballet "Pulcinella," based on the beakéd stock character of Italian comedia and music traditionally ascribed to Giovanni Pergolesi (though it could have been written by Domenico Gallo, Carlo Ignazio Monza, or the Count Unico Wilhelm van Wassenauer). Like a good art show, the OAE contextualized the Stravinsky by pairing it with other music by the possible "Pulcinella" composers. All of this music was filled with the familiar tropes of the galant style - those pesky "Pachabel's Canon" bass lines, the extended dominant pedal points - but there were also a few pleasingly weird moments. In Gallo's Trio Sonata for two violins, 'cello and continuo (fancy-shmanzy for accompanying harpsichord) there was a series of rapid modulations that moved the piece into a surprisingly far-away key. And although the Count Wassenauer was more known for his skills at diplomacy than music, the opening section of one of his "Concerti Armonici" featured rich dissonances among the florid counterpoint.
Many of Stravinsky's pieces are musical provocateurs and while "Pulcinella" certainly fits into this category, it is certainly not for the same reasons as the visceral and riotous (literally) "Rite of Spring." What is shocking about "Pulcinella" is how effortlessly Stravinsky-isms blend with the dated source material. For the most part, he doesn't stray far from the original Pergolessi (or Monza, whatever); there are no double-stacked bitonal chords here. When Stravinsky does throw in one of his trademarks, like a whirring flute texture straight out of Petrouchka or a jazzy trombone gliss, it's appropriately funny. These interruptions draw attention to themselves, yet they don't interrupt the flow of the music. Everything still hangs together, but how?
|Jean Baptiste Lully, the reason why conductors today use small sticks|
So despite their contrasting specialties, the OAE and London Sinfonietta proved quite compatible partners. The music they play demands a strict interpretation of pulse, and so their reliable senses of time led to a wonderfully transparent and energetic performance. Dare I say Gallo grooves?