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Live in Concert: Ensemble Matheus with David DQ Lee

Dqlee lyon As a fan of baroque performance practice, I have some favorite ensembles, and among them has been the Ensemble Matheus, directed by Jean-Christoph Spinosi. His violin playing is full of fresh energy, and his ensemble has an equally energetic, full-bodied sound when he takes up the baton. My only regret is that they take on more opera in recordings than instrumentals (I guess I'm a fan of the instrumental works over full operas.) But his recordings with the likes of Philippe Jaroussky have been good, so, it was a special opportunity to hear the ensemble live, in Lyon. Lyon recently featured the ensemble with David DQ Lee as part of their annual baroque festival at the Chapel de la Trinité. I'd only seen Lee in video presentations online. He's just as handsome in person. The baroque chapel is in a building that doesn't look like a church from the outside; it's a pretty flat façade. Inside, however, was a beautiful space, that was just big enough but not too big. All seats seem to fill by the start of the concert, which had an excellent turn-out. Baroque Festival Poster The only problem was, I didn't have a program. I remembered from my last visit to Paris that the typical scenario is to buy a program. Oh well, I went without, and it was more fun, trying to guess composers and compositions along the way. The first piece with Lee was Handel's Ombra mai fu. This slow, oft-loved aria for countertenor seemed fitting for Lee who did an excellent job with it. Just as on video, he can be a charismatic performer, using gesture to solidify the affect he's after with his voice. After Handel, the emphasis was on Vivaldi, from an opera sinfonia, to arias featuring Lee, and then two concertos: La Notte for flute (transversière in this case), and then the Vivaldi G-minor double cello concerto. Each concerto performance allowed the soloists and ensemble to play with a free style of abandon that you simply don't get in recordings. Spinosi at times took up the violin himself, and in so doing, almost came across as a spastic kid. I loved every minute of it. I've not see any other player look as he's having quite so much fun. You might expect the result sounds awful by the time the piece is done, but his technical ability allows him to take these liberties and still play the right notes. These include animated, overdone bowings, jumping a bit, and sawing away just a bit too fast. If the whole ensemble took up this way, you'd have a mess. But his energy translated well, and when he needed to stick above the crowd, it worked. Lee's ability with the faster arias was intensely satisfying, although his volume at times was challenged by the full-blooded EM orchestra; he simply didn't have the carrying power with so many strings on stage (EM does not employ a 1:1 ratio). Nevertheless, he came across with more than adequate drama and expression. Bellcoeur Square - Lyon Lee took a back seat towards the end, when the ensemble treated us to two encores; the first was a double-violin movement that featured an extended duet for Spinosi and his other top violinist. But the second encore was wholly unexpected and, in the end, quite awesome: a reading of Mai Nozipo, which I came to know originally from the Pieces of Africa CD by the Kronos Quartet. It was playfully done by Spinosi, whose flautist too took great pleasure in performing and improvising. He was Spinosi's equal, having already dazzled us in his rendition of the op. 10 flute concerto. The African piece required hand slapping on instruments, audience clapping in time, not to mention stomping by audience members. I know the piece isn't new to Spinosi's concertising, but it came across very fresh and ultimately the simple piece had me nearly in tears - it was a real emotional high. One of the hallmarks of EM's playing is the full-blooded, athletic bowing of their bass player, who here again, beats the hell out of his bass with sharp, articulate, fat notes. The volume level at times might make us think there are 3-4 basses; but the sound coming from a single instrument is wholly satisfying. Untitled I rarely see classical ensembles play with as many smiles on their faces, and it was clear that Spinosi leads his ensemble with authentic joy for the music and the performance. In addition, it was a treat to hear Lee in a supportive, beautiful acoustic environment. This concert was for me a special experience; I traveled pretty far from my home in Virginia to see this - which was the primary reason for my journey. While other great things were done during the trip, this live concert remained a very positive highlight.

Fleury Michon

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