Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond


April 02, 2008

Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante
Photo : mine 2008

Tuesday was another of those wonderful evenings at Walt Disney Concert Hall where those present got to bask in the glow of the adroit and meticulous Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante. Biondi and his colleagues have been on this stage before and it’s a joy to see them return with a program like Tuesday’s, which is not only entertaining but cleverly makes a number of points about contemporary music by focusing on works from the 18th century.

The pieces on offer for this Baroque program were in no way unusual – Vivaldi, Purcell, Leclair and the like. The playing was of the highest quality, which is also not a surprise. But the program was also centered around a worthwhile concept under the subtitle "France, Italy, and England - Connections and Exchanges." Specifically, the idea is that 18th century composers would often use musical elements from other not-so-far-away regions in order to inject their compositions with an “exotic” flair. Of course the shocking nature of “the Italian style” throughout Europe in the period is well known. But Biondi broadened the program with a series of works that attempted to give a taste of what were considered to be regional sounds in the 18th-century. The evening ended with a suite arranged by Biondi entitled “Les Nations” with brief snippets of pieces by Telemann, Biber, Muffat, Galuppi, Campra, and Destouches, intended to represent various ethnic groups such as the Danish, English, Spanish and Chinese. Of course given that this is 18th-century music, none of it sounds like what modern ears would expect and associate with musical elements from these cultural traditions, and often the sounds are far more similar to one another than different.

Which raises the question, what does it mean to have a foreign sound anyway? Biondi raises the question of what it means to refer to something as German or French-sounding by pointing out that these notions in and of themselves are cultural constructs tied to specific periods and traditions. For instance, to note that something has an "Italianate" quality, in fact, has very little meaning in a technically musical sense and may have more to do with one culture's perception of a series of signs and symbols embedded in a musical artifact that is viewed as being outside that culture itself. These Baroque pieces demonstrate that what sounding English was is no longer true today thus calling the whole construct of sounding English into question in the first place. In some ways a rather radical suggestion from such pretty and apparently straightforward music, but such is the wonder of the Baroque. Here’s to Europa Galante, and, hopefully, may it be a short time before they grace this coast again.


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