However much influence American pop and jazz have had on French music, in the classical realm the very last thing French musicians are likely to accept is an American showing them how to be French.
Yet it would be hard to come up with anyone other than Pierre Boulez who has had a greater effect on French art music in the last 36 years than the American harpsichordist and conductor William Christie, who founded the early music ensemble Les Arts Florissants in Paris in 1979. He revived huge swathes of astonishing French Baroque music that had been out of fashion for centuries by demonstrating the fabulous Frenchness of such composers as Marc-Antoine Charpentier (after whose opera "Les Arts Florissants" the ensemble is named).
In a rare visit to Los Angeles on Tuesday night, Christie brought a small contingent of his ensemble — five singers and five instrumentalists (including Christie) — to Walt Disney Concert Hall in what might have seemed an arcane and minor program based on the 16th century air de cour. But once more through exquisite and, above all, illuminating performances, Christie worked considerable magic.
The air de cour was originally a simple song with lute accompaniment meant to be sung by anyone, Christie's notes explain, be it laborers or ladies' maids. Such songs had once been called voix de ville, from which the word "vaudeville" was derived, but they needed a fancier title when the aristocracy became seduced by the music's power to express the anguish of love, the joys of sex, the pleasure of drink and the bliss of emotional excess.
Even so, that was then, and the songs can seem fairly pat today. Nor did the premise for Christie's program seem promising. He arranged numbers by Charpentier and Couperin and Michel Lambert, along with the forgotten Joseph Chabanceau de la Barre and Honoré D'Ambruys, into a little drama about a wedding. An innocent couple prepares for the big day and has a drunken party. Then come the conflicts, the tears and happy reconciliation. In the meantime, two other singers fall sexily in love.
The song texts didn't always neatly fit the situation, but the sentiments were apt, if commonplace. "The needs of our hearts can be read in our eyes," the bride sings.
But Christie made this a marvelous entertainment. The conductor has used Les Arts Florissants to train several generations of young performers, seeming to refresh the ensemble each few years. What changes, though, is his increasing emphasis on the theatricality of performance.
The airs themselves have a surprising amount of fluidity. They range from solo songs, to duets, trio, quartets and quintets, sometimes all in the same piece. Some airs are small dramas; others more like folk songs.
Christie used the songs with the greatest emotional extremes, from sappy happiness to suicidal despair — for the bride and groom, sung by the bright soprano Emmanuelle de Negri and avid tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen. The dusky mezzo-soprano Anna Reinhold and the breathy but brilliantly flexible baritone Marc Mauillon were the other pair of less complex but more seductive lovers. The eloquent bass Lisandro Abadie served as a benign spiritual guide to love.
What proved most remarkable, though, was the exceptional blend of all five voices, which at times seemed as if they were all the same vocal type. They further blended ideally with the ensemble of two violins, viola da gamba, theorbo and Christie's harpsichord.
Nor did Christie keep the ensemble free from the action. In the delightful drunken revelry, Charpentier's "Intermèdes nouveaux du Mariage forcé," the strings, led by the besotted wedding party, played wildly and magnificently out of tune. Strange overtones resulted, as if Christie had wandered into a Parisian modern music institute, such as IRCAM, and picked up some of the latest spectral techniques to bring Baroque music up to date.
Here the roots of vaudeville became clear. Still, even at this radical extreme, the intermingling of expression, of tone, of delicate ornamentation was the ultimate result of great refinement.
Though on a small scale, this evening was an impeccable example of what may be Christie's greatest contribution to music, demonstrating, particularly in French Baroque opera but also in Handel, Purcell and Mozart, how attention to sensitive detail, to perfectly tuned and turned turns of phrase, can bring out the most astonishing musical colors and sensations.