The youthful, up-and-coming orchestral ensemble, Les Vents Atlantiques, presented a riveting program this weekend to an eager audience. Performing chamber and orchestral repertoire from the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, the group was led by violinist Rebecca Huber. Members of this new ensemble formed in The Hague during the past couple years, promoting the performance practice of this repertoire in the manner in which it was done at the time of its composition. In light of context, Les Vents Atlantiques has chosen to perform without a conductor, thus thrusting the personal responsibility on each member to the fore.

Les Vents Atlantiques at Regentes theater
Les Vents Atlantiques at Regentes theater

What is fascinating in the ensemble’s approach is the juxtaposition of smaller scale compositions, such as the Wind Octets of Ludwig van Beethoven with the larger, orchestral settings like the Jupiter Symphony of W. A. Mozart. The program of the evening showcased works by Franz Joseph Haydn, Beethoven, the little-known Dutch composer Johannes van Bree and Mozart. The opening half of the program consisted of what we can call “chamber” music settings, using one instrument per part for most of the works.

We can hear the development of the symphonic experience and the marriage of small groups to larger orchestras particularly in the opening Notturno in G major by Haydn. Known as one of the figureheads of symphonic writing, to experience this work in a smaller setting (only 10 musicians onstage) stands as testament to historical practice and also to a more conscious representation of this music. The virtuosity of the violins being supported by a lively bass section made for the ultimate introduction to this ensemble.

Beethoven’s Wind Octet in E flat major, Op. 103 offered a natural link to the opening by Haydn, as the latter took Beethoven under his wing by allowing him to study with him in Vienna after being so impressed by his young talent. Composed for just eight people, this particular work represents a microcosm of the orchestral idiom so relevant and popular at the time. We see this in the structure of the work, comprising four vast movements written in the symphonic framework. Each family of instruments (oboes, bassoons, horns and clarinets) worked to incorporate an intimate sonority within this daunting structure.

By stripping the texture of the ensemble to its original parameters, one can hear the individuality in each melodic and harmonic line. The structure becomes more apparent and the quality of sound more striking, perhaps because of its sheer “newness” to the modern ear when using “authentic” instruments, i.e. strings made from gut and wind instruments made from specific types of wood.

One of the most refreshing aspects of the program was the choice to perform the lesser known Allegro for Four String Quartets in D minor by Dutch composer Johannes van Bree. As can be inferred from the title, four string quartets were assembled onstage, creating a visual as well as audible distinction. Each of the four groups took turns sharing the main thematic material and literally passing it on to the next group. The pleasure of this piece lay primarily in watching each group participate in the trading of musical content, all exchanging smiles throughout. It just goes to show that the most famous works in the canon of our “known” repertoire are not necessarily the most satisfying. Sometimes they come in smaller and more modest packages!

The culmination of the evening was W. A. Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony in C major. Les Vents Atlantiques built up the numbers in the ensemble during the first half of the program to slowly transition from a small ensemble to one made up of around 20 musicians which may seem small to our modern orchestral expectations but for the time, was quite unusual. Each voice has a distinct character and function, aiming for individuality of musical line rather than a mass of sound. (then your writing continued) The power of this ensemble lies in their daring ability to perform with individual voices as a single unit. By taking the texture literally, each instrumental member of the ensemble, whether it be strings, winds, bass section or percussion, stands out in a pure and decisive manner. Not only is it refreshing to hear this repertoire in a conscious setting but the vivacity and passion of this young ensemble made it all the more intriguing.