VAF Les Violons du Roy
Hixon Theater, April 21, 2017
Review by M.D. Ridge

On April 21, in the Hixon theater, the Canadian baroque orchestra Les Violons du Roy— the Violins of the King—enchanted the Virginia Arts Festival audience with a program of Strauss, Mozart and Romanian composer George Enescu.

Violinist Anthony Marwood, Principal Artistic Partner of the group since 2015, and five more players trooped onto the stage: violinist Véronique Vychytil, violists Isaac Chalk and Annie Morrier, and cellists Benoit Loiselle and Mariève Bock. They immediately launched into Richard Strauss’s “String Sextet” from the composer’s last opera, Capriccio. Written for strings, not singers, it served as a prelude to the opera, with closely related motifs. One did not miss vocal lines; the lines of music were interwoven into a lacelike pattern, and the beautiful singing was being done by the instruments, especially Loiselle’s cello, Marwood’s lovely violin and Chalk’s gorgeous viola.

Marwood, Loiselle, Chalk and Morriere reappeared with violinist Pascale Giguère for Mozart’s String Quintet in G Minor, K.516. Marwood’s energy communicated to the rest of the players, as he leaned back, tapping time, concentrating, with one foot in the air. He, and they, put their whole bodies into the music. The third movement, Adagio ma non troppo, leading to a light, graceful ending, shifts from major to minor. At the end of a phrase, Giguère closed her eyes, still very attentive to the other players. Morrier’s viola spoke out clearly. The final movement, Adagio—Allegro began at “a walking pace,” with cello pizzicato—dance-y, more like what we think of as Mozartean. Marwood rocked back, one knee in the air; his foot came down on the next downbeat. You’d think that might be distracting, but I find it quite the opposite: music is very physical; it doesn’t just happen above the eyebrows—and ideally the audience too is drawn into that physicality.

Enescu’s ambitious, sumptuous String Octet No.7, written when he was only 19, is full of ferociously difficult technicalities. Each of the eight players is treated as a soloist. Les Violons du Roy, now including violinist Michelle Seto, met its challenges smoothly and with passion. The first movement, “Tres modéré” (Very moderate) had sinuous melodic lines, and a passage of wonderful viola writing, (One expects good writing for violins, but sexy viola writing is much harder to find.) The movement ended on a fabulous diminuendo. “Tres fougueux” (Very fiery) was fiercely attacked, with repeated sharp strokes bowed in unison—wow. That high energy tamed down to sweetness and tenderness before ending in a rhythmic waltz, with ravishingly romantic strings, and a joyful, bravura ending.

Founded by conductor Bernard Labadie in 1984, Les Violons du Roy has been in residence at the Palais Montcalm in Québec City, Canada, since 2007. (Before that it was in Montreal.) The ensemble has a core membership of fifteen players. They play modern instruments—with copies of period bows. While thoroughly invested in the works of the Baroque and Classical periods, they also explore works of the 19th and 20 centuries, such as Piazzolla, Bartók and Britten—and Enescu. They have produced an amazing 32 recordings.

After the concert, I noticed Virginia Symphony violinist Tara-Louise Montour waiting for a chance to talk to them. She’s Canadian, they’re Canadian, and they know each other. (Showing the flag, supporting the home folks—always cool.)

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

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