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Pacific Music Works' Les Fêtes Parisiennes celebrates women composers

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Photo courtesy of Pacific MusicWorks
Photo courtesy of Pacific MusicWorks

If you've never heard a concert at the gorgeous Epiphany Parish in Madrona, put it on your list of things to do — especially if it's a concert by the fabulous Pacific Music Works. That early-music ensemble, led by conductor and scholar Stephen Stubbs, is known worldwide for its Grammy-winning recordings of music from the past.

Its early spring concert this year on April 3 — in person again, thank goodness — focused on music by forgotten female composers of the period: harpist Zoé de la Rüe (1770-1832) and pianist Anne Brillon de Jouy (1744-1824). It was a varied, fascinating afternoon of music featuring not only the brilliant playing of harpist Maxine Eilander but the introduction of a new (old) instrument, the fortepiano, played by keyboard artist and restorer Henry Lebedinsky.

Also featured were the always great Tekla Cunningham on Baroque violin and soprano Danielle Reuter-Harrah, without whom a PMW concert would be incomplete. Conductor Stephan Stubbs, playing an early classical guitar by the French maker Soriot (c. 1830), was also the arranger of many of the pieces in this fascinating concert, which has been filmed and is still available online.

The program opened with beautiful and familiar selections from Christoph Willlibald Gluck's opera Orphée et Euridice (Paris, 1774), which referenced the influence of French Baroque tradition of Lully (1632-1687) and Rameau (1683-1764). If you saw Seattle Opera's January production of Gluck's Italian version, Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), you had a rare opportunity to compare a fully produced chamber opera with a parlor-sized presentation consisting of melodic passages with a single singer. This familiar love story of Orpheus is as compelling in the lighter parlor mode as it is in the full opera with its larger musical forces and heavier weight of tragedy. PMW's chamber version not only featured the playful arias of L'Amour, sung with great allure by Reuter-Harrah, but it also featured Eilander's airy harp — reminding us that Orpheus was the ancient god of music, who opened the gates to the underworld by charming the furies with his instrument.

The program continued with pieces that further contextualized the works of de la Rüe and de Jouy, demonstrating the influence of the harp on French composition. Since brilliant women performers and composers were limited to practicing in private spaces, the parlor became a backdrop for some of the finest music for harp, pianoforte, and strings.

The Baroque guitar was also an important part of early music composition, demonstrated by a very welcome a sequence of songs by Fernando Sor (1778-1839), whose seguidillas for voice and guitar are the perfect weight both for private spaces and for contemporary audiences. Sor's passionate pieces of love and loss ("In Love's Prisons," "Prepare Me for My Tomb") perfectly matched de la Rüe's lyrical and witty songs. Her "C'en est fait" ("It's Over") on a poem by Évariste de Parny, is in the voice of a young lover who stole a kiss knowing that his crime would end the affair but who seems to prefer having the kiss as a souvenir to having the girl herself. This distinctly female view of masculine behavior is refreshing, especially when the male voice is sung by a woman. Stubb's guitar, with its plush tone, was a telling backdrop to Reuter-Harrah's naughty boy, as well as to the anguished, overwrought lovers of Sor's seguidillas.

PMW's members are known for their scholarship, since much of the music from this period must be brought to light by searching private and public libraries for unpublished works. One of the "fetes" to celebrate is keyboardist Henry Lebedinsky's discovery of the harp and violin works of de la Rüe in the Bibliothèque Nationale of France — a find that inspired Eilander to continue developing repertoire by this previously forgotten harpist and composer.

Lebedinsky, who usually performs on the harpsichord, also brought his marvelous reproduction of an 18th-century fortepiano to the concert, to play de Jouy's "Piano Sonata in A Minor." The instrument, which looks like a harpsichord with pedals, has a smaller keyboard than a piano and a softer tone, because the frame is made of wood and the hammers are lined with leather. It has a surprising range of dynamics (piano = soft; forte = loud), because there are foot pedals that control felt dampers — a refinement that a harpsichord lacks. This must have been a revelation to composers of the day, and de Jouy's energetic "Andante con molto espressione" showed off all the colors and possibilities of the new instrument.

Les Fêtes Parisiennes captures a historical moment in the development of music that not only resurrects important women composers of the day but preserves them for the future and sets their work firmly among famous and familiar male composers. By using period instruments and focusing on the compositions that preceded and followed Zoé de la Rüe and Anne Brillion de Juoy, PMW has given us a host of revelations, along with an array of splendid music brilliantly performed.

This great concert is still available at https://pacificmusicworks.org/tickets/fetes-parisiennes-on-demand/ until September 9, 2022.