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January 30, 2012

Les Violons du Roy, recorder soloist Maurice Steger light up Shriver Hall

I don't think of the typical Shriver Hall Concert Series crowd as very likely to do a lot of enthusiastic hooting and hollering over baroque music, but that was the reaction given Sunday evening to Les Violons du Roy. No wonder.

This ensemble of 15 from Quebec City delivered a sterling demonstration of period instrument panache, and had the extra advantage of a Pied Piper-like soloist who worked his magic on three concertos.

The whole program had an infectious energy. And, for all of the obvious discipline and fine-honing in the execution, there was an air of spontaneity, too.

If you never thought a "historically informed" performance could be fun, this concert would have turned your ears.

Les Violons du Roy, conducted by founding artistic director Bernard Labadie, got things started with Handel's Concerto Grosso in B-flat (Op. 6, No. 7).

There were pianissimi of the finest grade. Every crescendo, accelerando, ritardando and other expressive device was achieved with great finesse.

The overall sound of the orchestra was quite warm, far from the dry tone of early music groups in the first days of the authenticity movement; tempos, too, felt more flexible.

When speed was desired, as in the most spirited variations in the "La Follia" Concerto Gross by Geminiani (after Corelli), it hit unabashedly supersonic levels, yet never left a single player in the dust. Solo playing within the ensemble was uniformly impressive, at whatever speed.

The rest of the program was devoted to ...

works for recorder and orchestra.

The recorder is one of those instruments that isn't always taken seriously, and isn't always heard to its best advantage. 

(That's one reason there was so much comic mileage in the vintage Saturday Night Live skit about a dicey French restaurant where "for your entertainment pleasure, our daughter Francine will play the recorder.")

Swiss-born Maurice Steger could disarm the most recorder-adverse listener with a single phrase. He combines a startling level of technical bravura with an ability to breathe sincerity and purpose into even the most floridly decorative phrase.

The personality in his playing proved quite persuasive, especially in Telemann's A minor Concerto. Steger's disarming charm made each movement of that work more animated and involving than the last.

The soloist also made much of the Haydn-worthy wit in the music, aided at every step of the way by Labadie and the ensemble.

The Telemann piece was so rewarding on so many levels that it would have been better placed at the end of the evening. The concertos that came after -- by Sammartini and Geminiani -- had their fine points, but paled by comparison, in one way or another.

Still, Steger's delivery remained full of character, and the beautifully dovetailed contributions of Les Violons du Roy remained equally delectable.



Posted by Tim Smith at 1:49 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Shriver Hall


What a wonderful concert that was! I completely agree with your review.

At first, I was a little put off by Mr. Steger's liveliness, thinking "my goodness, this young man does flail about, doesn't he?" But hearing his performance I was astonished! The performance was spot-on, lively, risk-taking, and brilliant throughout. I especially loved his lively interaction with the other musicians onstage, a connection that seemed to be delightfully close, with a passion, sense of humor, and spur-of-the-moment wit that was infectious.

The audience absolutely ate it up! And who could resist such liveliness and grace drawing one into the music and carrying it's impact so beautifully. You are absolutely right, his performance was brilliantly witty. Beyond being an incredible, amazing virtuoso of the first caliber, his performance beautifully dramatized the kind of brilliant improvisational interaction that makes the music of this age such a lively joy that really brings it to passionate life.

The only thing I might add was to mention that the performances by the soloists from within the orchestra were also really quite wonderful in and of themselves. I was also struck by the brilliant interactive-ness of these musicians; they are not just an ensemble that's accustomed to playing together brilliantly, but passionate musicians continuing an on-going and witty "discussion" which was a real delight to hear. With all of his wit, humor and brilliance, Mr. Steger's interaction with the the orchestra wouldn't have worked anything like as well without their elegant, sure-footed responsiveness.

In particular, I think that the first violinist is a treasure. Her brilliant solo performances, particularly in the adaptation of the Corelli, were beautiful, passionate, and, yes, equally full of wit and verve. She produced a depth and liveliness of tone that really brought this already very famous music to passionate life. My friend and I immediately agreed that she would be an incredible soloist in her own right, easily able to take the center position with panache and charisma.

I'd also like to add that I attended the lecture that took place in the upstairs lobby just outside the entrance to the balcony starting at 4:30pm, just before the concert. These lectures are always great fun, but last Sunday's lecture was illustrated with live performances by three brilliant young performers from Peabody playing Lute, Viols, and recorders. These lectures are always a great way to enter the music we are about to hear during the concert. They are often quite fun, and are always approachable without being at all condescending. That's a difficult feat to accomplish for an audience of widely varying musical education! But, even more than usual, Sunday's lecture was a particular treasure. For one thing, the illustrations used in the lecture were were delightful little live performances in and of themselves.
If your readers are not aware of this wonderful lecture series, held just before most Shriver Hall concerts, they are missing something very special. This week's lecture and performance were particularly good examples of how wonderful that treasure can be: charming, approachable, and always lively and interesting.

Wow. You win this month's award for most thorough and informative blog comments. Thanks so much for sharing your reactions to the music and the pre-concert lecture. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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