By R. M. Campbell
Les Violons du Roy, the Canadian chamber orchestra, along with English tenor Ian Bostridge gave an astonishing, often revealing concert Wednesday night at Benaroya Hall, under the auspices of the Seattle Symphony Visiting Orchestra Series. While the concert represented a double local debut for orchestra and soloist, Bostridge has appeared twice in Vancouver, presented by the Vancouver Recital Society, founded by the ambitious and fearless Leila Getz.
I was at Bostridge’s Northwest debut recital in Vancouver, and even though 15 years have elapsed, I have not forgotten his high intelligence, his unique musical profile and ability to draw drama from whatever is at hand. Nothing has changed in the intervening years, except his repertory has widen and deepened. Now, he does not only music of the Baroque era but also Schubert and Schumann and Stravinsky, Mozart, Britten and Janacek, plus an impressive range of more contemporary music.
Les Violons du Roy, which takes its name from a celebrated string orchestra at the French court. was founded in Quebec City nearly 30 years ago by Bernard Labadie, who conducted Wednesday. It is an accomplished ensemble of some 15 core players. On Wednesday, a pair of oboes, a solitary bassoon and harpsichord were added. Although the program was entirely Baroque in origin, the orchestra has a large and diverse repertory.
The ensemble was given a wide range of assignments beyond accompanying Bostridge: a lot of Handel and gestures to Francesco Geminiani and William Boyce. There was much to admire, including the cohesiveness of the string sound, the handsome balance among various instruments and ability to move quickly. There were multiple colors and an array of dynamic levels. Everything sounded freshly minted. Labadie likes fast tempos and pushed the players hard, occasionally too much so, resulting in smudged passage work. The effect of such speed can be exhilarating, thus the attraction to the podium. However, when concertmaster Nicole Trotier, had a major solo, which she delivered at high speed and accuracy, one could hear the difference.
Bostridge was the star attraction. He also sang a lot of Handel, from such works as “Tamerlano,” “Giulio Cesare,” “Poro” and “Hercules,” as well as arias of Francesco Gasparini, Antonio Caldara and Antonio Vivaldi. The tenor does not possess anything resembling a conventional voice. It is not especially beautiful and its range is limited. Yet, the timbre is completely individual and immediately recognizable. His technical skills are developed but not extraordinary. Thus, the question is what does Bostridge have? He has a unique voice that is expressive and able to articulate what Bostridge wants. Vast colors are put to illuminating uses. Too many singers never get beyond a monotone. That condition is totally alien to Bostridge. Every phrase is different yet coherent in design and effect. No one sings in the manner or style of Bostridge: he is an individual but not an eccentric. The difference is enormous. He always seems inside the music, giving it breadth and meaning.
Although the house was not full, the audience was attentive throughout the evening and enthusiastic at the end. As a reward, Bostridge offered a lament from Handel’s opera “Ariodante.” It was some of the most poignant singing I have ever heard