French Chamber Orchestra Ensemble Matheus Does Bach – and Rock

Monday, March 04, 2013

Europe is full of accomplished period-instrument groups that specialize in high-voltage performances of Baroque and early classical repertoire. But Ensemble Matheus is one of the rare ensembles that can claim to have played in all of Paris's opulent concert halls — as well as an outdoor rock festival.

This 22-year-old ensemble, founded and still based in France's Brittany region, began as a string quartet called Quatuor Matheus led by the violinist Jean-Christophe Spinosi. Through the following decade, it grew into what is today a 40-piece chamber orchestra comprised of strings, winds, harpsichord, lute and percussion.

The orchestra is best known in the U.S. for its series of Vivaldi recordings for the Naïve label, including premiere versions of the rarely heard operas La Fida Ninfa, Griselda and La Verita in Cimento. Several have won industry awards like the Diapason D'Or and nods from the BBC. As a touring outfit, Ensemble Matheus has been slower to gain traction, though that began to change in 2008 with a U.S. tour that brought some favorable reviews. The Washington Post observed: "Ensemble Matheus brushed the dust off Handel and showed that there's more furious, passionate life in Baroque music than you might suspect."

After performing at Carnegie's Zankel Hall that year, the group got a callback for this performance featuring selections from Handel's opera Serse, Vivaldi's L'Olimpiade (an opera about the ancient Olympic Games) and a cello concerto by Nicola Antonio Porpora, a composer who was said to be Handel's rival. The emphasis on opera for this concert is no accident: Ensemble Matheus has moved deeper into the repertoire, including 19th-century works like Rossini's Le Comte Ory.

Another side of the group's musical personality was on display in July at the Vieilles Charrues Festival, France's largest music festival, whose headliners included Bob Dylan, Sting and electropop singer Santigold. For the Sunday afternoon set, the musicians put on their rocker garb and played an eyebrow-raising mix of Baroque favorites (Handel's "Ombra Mai Fu," Vivaldi's Four Seasons) in traditional and rock versions complete with rhythm section. A YouTube video of the performance shows an enthusiastic crowd responding to violinist Mathieu Spinosi — the 22-year-old son of founder Jean-Christophe Spinosi — ripping through an intense version of Vivaldi's "Summer" while wearing a scarf wrapped around his head.

In an interview on France 24, Jean-Christophe Spinosi explained the importance of placing early music before different audiences: "We can't put walls between what's popular and what's jazz and what's classical. That old attitude no longer works."

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