Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048
Mendelssohn: Double Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings in D Minor, MWV 4
Stravinsky: Concerto in E-flat (Dumbarton Oaks)
Mozart: Symphony No. 29 in A Major
Another day at Aix-en-Provence’s Festival de Pâques, another exciting concert in perspective. For our last stop in our foray into the terrific musical event, my mom and I had selected a concert featuring festival founder, eminent violinist, and incidentally Gautier’s big brother, Renaud Capuçon, the most American of French pianists, endlessly versatile and international star Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and the festival’s Orchestra-in-Residence The Knights, a resolutely plucky musical collective from Brooklyn that is equally at ease in the prestigious confine of Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall as in the outdoor space of Central Park’s Naumburg Shell.
Therefore, on Thursday evening, after some quality time at the Musée Granet and the Collection Jean Planque, we ventured to the third and biggest venue of our program, the soberly modern, round-shaped Grand Théâtre de Provence. That’s where a large and eclectic audience, which happened to include former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls and his violinist wife in the row behind us, eagerly packed the auditorium for the compelling program consisting of Bach, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky and Mozart. And if we still had not realized that this concert was indeed a big deal, numerous fancy-looking cameras and microphones reminded us that the performance would be broadcast live on Radio Classique and later on ARTE Concerts. So there.
Starting a concert with Johann Sebastian Bach is a good way to assert one’s musical credentials as well as make everybody happy. So far so good, but The Knights had something else in mind too. Not only contenting themselves to display their impeccable skills while playing the original composition, they also demonstrated once again their well-known spirit of adventure by boldly inserting Paul Simon’s 1973 song “American Tune”, soulfully sung by Knightess Christina Courtin, into the middle movement. Chosen as a testimony of our uncertain times, the song, which is based on a melody line found in a chorale from Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, integrated into the Adagio rather well, if a bit peculiarly. In any case, as the woman sitting next to me pointed out, it was indisputably “creative”.
Readily jumping from baroque with a pop twist to classical with a romantic twist, the ensemble next joined forces with Renaud Capuçon and Jean-Yves Thibaudet for Felix Mendelssohn’s Doule Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings, which the precocious composer wrote when he was 14 years old. Probably as a result, the piece overflows with boundless energy and intense lyricism, cheerfully spinning out one attractive melody after another. The playing was in fact so exhilarating that the audience started vigorously applauding at the end of the first movement, and for so long that Capuçon eventually had to discreetly signal that it was not over yet. And then the music went on, the violin and piano handling the tricky passages with impressive dexterity and flair while the orchestra provided the indispensable solid background to let the duo shine steady and bright.
After intermission, The Knights were back for Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, a composition – and a composer – whose uncompromising inventiveness seem tailor-made for them. Commissioned by Robert and Mildred Bliss for their thirtieth wedding anniversary at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., which could not fail to remind me of my brief residency right down the street from the historic estate, and inspired by – Surprise! – the Bradenburg Concertos, most particularly No. 3, Dumbarton Oaks is bubbly without being vacuous and imaginative without being esoteric. The Knights played the three continuous movements with plenty of verve and just the right amount of grittiness.
The program ended on an immensely enjoyable note with one of Mozart’s most popular works from his youth, his Symphony No. 29, which also marked his farewell to Bach’s influence as the 18-year old composer was moving toward defining his own style. And while the interpretation by the smaller ensemble that is The Knights by default did not have the breadth and richness that a larger orchestra would have made possible, their more intimate performance was expertly calibrated to bring out the irresistible élan and natural radiance of the piece. In the end, beside providing pure musical bliss, this splendid conclusion to our mini-festival also brought about a fleeting thought about my return to The Big Apple, and a solemn promise to come back to the festival sooner than later.