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Friday, July 31, 2020

Fontaine Fables Foibles

From the Musical Vault Dept.: Monday’s post recalled a warm Saturday night when I enjoyed a program at Robert Conant’s Greenfield Center (NY) studio of music for lute and theorbo. I was back the following day to review another concert there: this one.


REMEMBER THAT SCENE in the movie “The Third Man” when Joseph Cotten is watching a play in Vienna, in German, unable to understand a word and looking surprised when the rest of the audience laughs?

Jean de la Fontaine
It could have been like that at the Festival of Baroque Music concert in Greenfield Center Sunday afternoon, when the French Art Theatre presented selections from the fables of Jean de la Fontaine, performed in costume and in French, a language fairly mysterious to me. But it wasn’t.

These three actors were terrific and, with a little help from English-language synopses provided in the program, the meanings were nicely transparent.

It’s an unusual kind of presentation to find on a program of Baroque music but this eclecticism characterizes the work of Robert Conant’s enduring festival.

James Lewis has a dignified but expressive James Mason kind of face that looked just right beneath his long, curly wig. As he began the tale of “The Wolf and the Lamb,” Ellen de la Torre seated herself by an imaginary stream and became, with wide eyes and a moue, the woolly animal, while dark-bearded Julio de la Torre assumed the guise of the predator, in a delightful fable that illustrates that might does, in fact, make right. A chomp on the neck proved it for us.

The other seven fables – four in each half of the concert – were similarly, engagingly done and, for once, I wouldn’t even hint my usually suggestion that the actors should have used a native-language translation.

Music by French composers was mixed throughout. An opening suite for two flutes by Michel de la Berre was played on Baroque instruments by Jane Ambrose and Esther Kruger. Conant took to the harpsichord for three selections from the Ordres of Francois Couperin in masterful interpretations of these miniatures – and how at home he is at the keyboard out in the pleasant woods in his specially designed studio!

The concluding work was Couperin’s “Apotheosis of Lully,” an instrumental suite with introductions (provided by Lewis). In its time, it poked fun at the rift between French and Italian musical stylings, with its depiction of the Italian-born but naturalized-French Lully ascending to Parnassus to meet the great Italian composer Corelli, where the two supposedly manage peace under the guidance of Apollo.

For all of that, it isn’t Couperin at his best. The musical jokes that might have been subtle in their day are obscure to all but the academicians and there is a graveness throughout that tends to come off as sluggish.

Still, the performance – by Conant, Ambrose, and Kruger along with violinists Jorie Garrigue and Cynthia Roberts, and Baroque bassoonist Joseph Urbinato – can’t be faulted, especially with the added fillip of on-the-spot, costumed narration.

The festival concludes its season this weekend with a performance by the Conant Baroque Trio at 8 p.m. Friday and a recital by sopranos Elsa Charlston and Rondi LaFontaine at 4 p.m. Sunday, both at the Greenfield Center Studio.

– Schenectady Gazette, 29 July 1986

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