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There is no better embodiment of baroque music than French music of the late 17th century.

Les Voix Humaines 

Duke University's Goodson Chapel
Friday, Nov. 3

There is no better embodiment of baroque music than French music of the late 17th century. The word baroque comes from the Portuguese barroco, a term used to refer to an imperfect pearl, one irregular in shape and unusual in color. By standards of predictability, it doesn't pass muster. Judged, though, on feeling, poetry, grace and intimacy—those imperfect serendipities that make us human—it is perfection.

In its principles, baroque music is not unlike modern jazz, especially with the subtle irregularity of each beat subdivision. In jazz, it's called swing. In French baroque, it's inégal, or unequal. Both styles are harmonically adventurous, experimental, without set forms, sometimes without even bar lines and with only the barest indication of how the notes line up harmonically. The second player must intuit the entry. That improvisational quality means no two performances are alike. Wild variations are not only allowed but expected within a basic structure. One player's ornaments and stylings elicit equally varied responses from the second. Performers have to be exquisitely attuned to the music, to the hall, to the audience and to each other.

At Duke University's Goodson Chapel on Friday night, Montreal viola da gamba duo Les Voix Humaines, comprised of Margaret Little and Susie Napper, presented a program of music by two superb exemplars of French baroque, the Sieur de Sainte-Colombe and his student Marin Marais. Their story was reflected in a 1992 French film called Tous les matins du monde (All the Mornings of the World): Sainte-Colombe was a reclusive teacher (to this day not even his first name is definitely known) and Marais was his ambitious student. Sainte-Colombe's technical and musical innovations for the viol are legendary, but he preferred to create his austere, intensely personal music in seclusion. It was Marais who, having studied as much as he could with the virtuoso who refused to teach him more, went to the opulent court of Louis XIV and became the most renowned viol player in France at a time when the instrument was at the height of its popularity.

One of the greatest appeals of the bass viol was its closeness in timbre to that most perfect instrument, the human voice. Its six or seven strings are played with the bow held palm up, instead of down as in modern bowing techniques, and its tone is often described as mournful. But Napper and Little have more than this one note to their strings, and their fingers produce a sound far more nuanced—thoughtful, sensitive, the fiendishly difficult technical challenges turned toward expressiveness, never showmanship.

The evening's first work, Sainte-Colombe's L'Attentif, began with an improvisatory free passage. Les Voix Humaines have been an ensemble for more than 20 years, and it shows. Little's quietly rapturous playing here was intelligent but warm, deeply emotional but restrained—this is, after all, the music of the Age of Reason. Napper's response was passionate and intense, alive to every nuance of Little's phrasing. One of the greatest delights was the way they were able to make plain the relationship between title and music. The downward runs of Sainte-Colombe's Le Précipité were not just fast. They tumbled off the string. In his Tombeau les Regrets, written on the death of his wife, the wrenchings of grief and choked sobs lay in the line's sharp dissonances and hesitancies.

With three works from Marais, the show turned from shadow to brilliance, projecting the elegance, charm and sweetness the Sun King wanted for his court. The program's second half brought two virtuosic works: Saint-Colombe's chaconne Les Couplets and Marais's 31 variations on the famous Folies d'Espagne theme. For an encore, the duo played the work from which they took their name, Marais's Les voix humaines, and the descriptive title typical of this style was never more appropriate. Napper and Little's playing so sensitively probed the deepest meanings of this music that the few intonation glitches and dropped notes could not mar the sheer soul-filling beauty of music and performance.

This was the inaugural concert of Goodson Chapel, whose design echoes the pointed arches and mullioned windows of Duke's larger chapel. Goodson's size and acoustics made it an excellent performing space for this kind of early chamber music, and one that Duke has long needed. Future concerts include Duke's resident Ciompi Quartet with the Vocal Arts Ensemble and guest soloists in a program of modern minimalism on Jan. 26, and the a cappella vocal Calmus Ensemble Leipzig on Feb. 16. If Friday's turnout for Les Voix Humaines is anything to go by, get there early.

  • There is no better embodiment of baroque music than French music of the late 17th century.

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