The Marais Project: Rameau – Phillip Black’s Spotlight Story

The Marais Project provide “great early music for the viola da gamba, performed by talented, passionate musicians in a relaxed atmosphere”. This was certainly my experience at their recent concert at Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music.

Based in Sydney The Marais Project’ is one of the few professional groups in Australia the viola da gamba, a string instrument that first appeared in the mid to late 15th century and was most popular during the latter part of the Baroque period (c.1590-1725).

Jennifer Eriksson founded The Marais Project in 2000 with the aim to perform the complete viola da gamba works composed by the French virtuoso Marin Marais (1656-1728).

They began to celebrate their 15th continuous year of performing the works of Marais, with Concert 1, of their annual concert series of three on Sunday 25 May.

Concert 1: Rameau was directed by Jennifer Eriksson on viola da gamba, accompanied by Raymond Harvey, the harpsichord), Fiona Ziegler violin and tenor viol) and Tommie Andersson on theorbo and guitar.  ocal accompaniment was by soprano Belinda Montogomery and baritone David Hidden.

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) was a contemporary of Marin Marais, a French composer and viol player who also studied composition with Jean-Baptiste Lully, often conducting his operas, and with master of the bass viol Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe.

They chose to perform a selection of Rameau’s work, beginning the concert with his famous Pièces de clavecin en concerts (1741) for harpsichord, violin and viola da gamba.

This was followed by two cantatas by Rameau, then Tombeau pour Marais le Cadet by Marin Marais, and the world premiere of a new work for viola da gamba Mathematics of Motion, by Alice Chance.

I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. It was a wonderfully satisfying experience, where you could hear all the instruments clearly, plus the vocalists who were all delight.

Rameau was greatly influenced by the Enlightenment movement and the studies of Newton, Descartes and Kepler and the spirit of these scientific revolutions exist in his theoretic writings. He was convinced of the scientific basis of music and set out fundamental principles that govern harmony.

Alice Chance acknowledged this in composing a most fitting tribute to Rameau with her Mathematics in Motion

This was a relatively short but lively and rhythmical piece for harpsichord and viola da gamba that started in the grand manner of the Baroque before transposing into a piece of melodic modern music played on authentic Baroque period instruments ‘with elegance’.

Music of the Baroque Period is known for its inconsistency, but encompasses the use of basso continuo, degrees of ornamentation, self-expression, open forms, and the formation of counterpoint

Consequently, although the music of the Baroque Period shares the same genre title, the difference between pieces can be quite astounding with its unique styles, textures, and forms continuing to enchant and delight listeners today, which happened with this concert.

While listing I couldn’t help wondering just what do we as an audience expect from a performance of period music?

A period music performance is when music is played in a historically appropriate style or on instruments from the epoch when the music was written, and with fidelity to the composers’ intention

The term is most commonly applied in music from the Middle Ages to the Baroque.

But exactly how do we know how early music actually sounded in its own time

Jenny Erikkson and composer Alice Chance, relaxing after the performance

Such is the quest for sounds and styles consistent with original performance practices that has musicologists burying themselves in libraries and museums in search of clues.

Tempo markings in manuscripts, composers’ correspondence, treatises about ornamentation and harmony, guides to playing instruments, and the instruments themselves all offer up evidence for musicians today.

The enjoyment of period music produced by period performance ensembles today is that it is no longer an interpretation of pieces in a dry and academic way, but embodies the free-wheeling spirit of Baroque music.

As it would have been played in the 17th century – in taverns, cafés and people’s living rooms. The Marais Project ensures that playing in period style can, and should, be fun for their audience.

The Marais Project theme for 2014 is “Re-Imaginings” …. to re-imagine the viola da gamba in a range of settings in conjunction with a broad range of talented musical colleagues

Concert 1 in the 2014 series of French Baroque music by The Marais Project has achieved this objective already by continuing to open our ears to the wonders of this music.

Excitingly this will be expanded in Concerts 2 and 3 of the 2014 series with plans for inclusion of new works, new collaborations and a new instrument, the electric viola da gamba.

Phillip Black, Guest Author Spotlight Stories, The Culture Concept Circle 2014

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