Music scholars have long recognized that music is more than the notes on the page; composers write within the context of their lives and what is happening around them. The Dryden Ensemble has never been a performance organization to limit itself to the music of one composer, and the ensemble’s concert at Miller Chapel in Princeton on Sunday afternoon presented a good survey of 17th and 18th-century French music. Perhaps taking a cue from the recent and highly successful Metropolitan Opera pastiche The Enchanted Island, Dryden ensemble oboist Jane McKinley designed a program which told a story through music and literature — primarily the letters of 17th-century French aristocrat Madame de Sévigné. The incorporation of these letters, as well as other period readings, provided the Dryden with the opportunity to create a drama in which literature provided commentary and atmosphere to the music.
Unlike other Dryden Ensemble performances, which mixed and matched the players for different pieces, the six performers on Sunday afternoon — violinists Vita Wallace and Andrea Andros, oboists Jane McKinley and Julie Brye, viol player Lisa Terry and harpsichordist Webb Wiggins, all played in almost every piece. There were several works which featured solo or duets of instruments, but Ms. Terry and Mr. Wiggins were on call throughout as continuo players. In the pieces in which all players participated, the ensemble was impressively precise in the space of Miller Chapel, with violins and oboes blending together well. In the opening “Entrée from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide,” the notes inégales were nicely played with 18th-century swing, and the Dryden Ensemble effectively provided “mood music” to the narration.
To convey the story, Paul Hecht, a veteran of McCarter Theatre as well as Broadway, read a narrative of the trial of Nicolas Fouquet, Superintendent of Finances to Louis XIV, augmented with other readings and letters describing the culture of the times. Providing literary commentary and embellishment was Roberta Maxwell, also a veteran of stage and film, reading the letters of the Marquise de Sévigné. The letters of the Marquise were both eloquent and humorous, commenting on the drama and subtle soap operas playing out in the royal court. Mr. Hecht especially seemed to enjoy the accompanying music, and both he and Ms. Maxwell were animated and communicative with the audience.
The Dryden Ensemble divided the program into two “acts,” each featuring the music of leading French composers of the Baroque period. Only one complete work was performed — François Couperin’s La Piémontoise, whose movements bracketed several readings. The excerpts of the works of Lully, Couperin, and Marin Marais were appealing in and of themselves, but as accompaniment to the descriptive readings, these pieces held audience attention well. Ms. Terry’s seven-string viol was the most unique instrument heard, with Ms. Terry playing clean lines into the viol’s upper register. Oboists Ms. McKinley and Ms. Brye provided courtly playing in Lully’s Menuet pour les Hautbois, and Ms. Wallace and Ms. Andros had numerous opportunities to play clean thirds and unison ornaments in several works featuring paired violins. Ms. Terry and Mr. Wiggins were relentless in providing solid continuo accompaniment to the other players.
In this century of electronic communication, hand-written letters are rare and expressive glimpses into another time and place, and paint pictures not often seen these days. The Dryden Ensemble’s imaginative “Versailles” concert provided a look into a thought-provoking time from a prior century which may have been turbulent, but produced some of the most elegant music ever written.