Les Violons du Roy, recorder soloist Maurice Steger light up Shriver Hall

01.30.12
Les Violons du Roy
Baltimore Sun

By Tim Smith

I don't think of the typical Shriver Hall Concert Series crowd as very likely to do a lot of enthusiastic hooting and hollering over baroque music, but that was the reaction given Sunday evening to Les Violons du Roy. No wonder.

This ensemble of 15 from Quebec City delivered a sterling demonstration of period instrument panache, and had the extra advantage of a Pied Piper-like soloist who worked his magic on three concertos.

The whole program had an infectious energy. And, for all of the obvious discipline and fine-honing in the execution, there was an air of spontaneity, too.

If you never thought a "historically informed" performance could be fun, this concert would have turned your ears.

Les Violons du Roy, conducted by founding artistic director Bernard Labadie, got things started with Handel's Concerto Grosso in B-flat (Op. 6, No. 7).

There were pianissimi of the finest grade. Every crescendo, accelerando, ritardando and other expressive device was achieved with great finesse.

The overall sound of the orchestra was quite warm, far from the dry tone of early music groups in the first days of the authenticity movement; tempos, too, felt more flexible.

When speed was desired, as in the most spirited variations in the "La Follia" Concerto Gross by Geminiani (after Corelli), it hit unabashedly supersonic levels, yet never left a single player in the dust. Solo playing within the ensemble was uniformly impressive, at whatever speed.

The rest of the program was devoted to ...works for recorder and orchestra.

The recorder is one of those instruments that isn't always taken seriously, and isn't always heard to its best advantage. 

(That's one reason there was so much comic mileage in the vintage Saturday Night Live skit about a dicey French restaurant where "for your entertainment pleasure, our daughter Francine will play the recorder.")

Swiss-born Maurice Steger could disarm the most recorder-adverse listener with a single phrase. He combines a startling level of technical bravura with an ability to breathe sincerity and purpose into even the most floridly decorative phrase.

The personality in his playing proved quite persuasive, especially in Telemann's A minor Concerto. Steger's disarming charm made each movement of that work more animated and involving than the last.

The soloist also made much of the Haydn-worthy wit in the music, aided at every step of the way by Labadie and the ensemble.

The Telemann piece was so rewarding on so many levels that it would have been better placed at the end of the evening. The concertos that came after -- by Sammartini and Geminiani -- had their fine points, but paled by comparison, in one way or another.

Still, Steger's delivery remained full of character, and the beautifully dovetailed contributions of Les Violons du Roy remained equally delectable.