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The Tropical Baroque Festival opened on Friday night with an intimate recital by Jean Rondeau. Both a classical harpsichordist and jazz pianist, Rondeau has attained near rock-star status in his native France. Indeed his mod appearance belies Rondeau’s versatility and artful sensibilities.
The third-floor ballroom of the Renaissance at the Gables was the setting for Rondeau’s traversal of Bach and Scarlatti keyboard gems and jazz improvisations on Baroque music and beyond. The audience was treated to a pasta dinner following the performance, part of the festival’s outreach efforts to draw new listeners.
Playing a handsome modern dual-keyboard harpsichord designed by the Carl Fudge company of Boston—the soundboard embroidered with illustrations of birds—-Rondeau opened with a reading of J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C minor that brought out the pathos beneath the music’s formal structure. (Utilizing only very minimal amplification, the instrumental sound was clear without the thin sonority of some early keyboard instruments.) Rondeau’s lucid commentary between selections was part of the concert’s charm. Although he apologized for his less-than-perfect English—exacerbated, he noted, by jet lag—his words and performances defined a strong and distinctive musical personality.
Three sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti demonstrated Rondeau’s digital dexterity and his ability to draw out the scores’ shifting moods. In the Sonata in E Major, he turned the harpsichord into a melodic instrument, making the percussive registrations sing. The contrasting darker central episode was more driven, the details clear and differentiated. Rondeau took an incisive approach to the more somber Sonata in A minor and brought charm and subtlety to the Mozartean melodic strands in the variations of the Sonata in D minor.
Any question about Rondeau’s mastery of the instrument and musicianship was brushed aside by a superb and imaginative reading of Bach’s Italian Concerto in F Major. The fleet articulations and springy rhythms of the opening Allegro found the dancelike verve that underlies Bach’s lighter moments. Taking a deliberate tempo, Rondeau assayed the grave melody of the Andante in the right hand while making the chords in the left strongly felt and weighted. His approach to the final movement was more Classical than the usual speedy-fingered romp. The minor-key episode was strongly accented, every note precisely weighed and clear. Utilizing both keyboards, he even drew dynamic variations from the instrument in a supple, refreshing reading of this oft-played classic.
Following intermission Rondeau switched to a baby Steinway for a musical tasting menu of his pop and jazz side. Much of his deft touch at the harpsichord was transferred to the modern piano for an eloquently stated performance of Scarlatti’s Sonata in A Major. After playing the score in a straightforward manner, he began jazzing up the quiet melody, at first in the spirit of Scarlatti, gradually becoming more modern and large scaled.
The simple Spanish melody of the traditional La Pasionaria was given the cool jazz treatment with quasi-Baroque melodic patterns mixed in. The irresistible beat of Italian composer Enrico Pieranunzi’s Don’t Forget the Poet was followed by the more romantic tones of Rondeau’s own Le Danse des Hippocampes (Dance of the Sea Horses) with blues notes along the way.
Rondeau concluded with his own reinvention of Antonio Soler’s Fandango, the jazzy rhythm in the left hand omnipresent throughout his imaginative improvised variants, always true to the spirit of the eighteenth-century Spanish dance.
The Tropical Baroque Festival continues with Fuoco E Cenere with Jean Rondeau playing an all Vivaldi program featuring The Four Seasons 8 p.m. Saturday at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Coral Gables. tropicalbaroquemusicfestival.org; 305-669-1376.
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