The ensemble XVII-21 Le Baroque Nomade was warmly received in its North American debut Friday evening at Montréal’s Bourgie Hall. Their concert, titled “Venice, Mirror to the World”, was presented in conjunction with the exhibition “Splendore a Venezia: Art and Music from the Renaissance to Baroque in Venice” at the adjoining Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal.

XVIII-21 Le Baroque Nomade
XVIII-21 Le Baroque Nomade

Featuring composed works, improvised pieces and folk songs from across the globe, the program offered a welcome alternative to traditional classical music concerts and proved that the boundaries between east and west are more imaginary than real.

Music from the Middle East and Asia has influenced European culture since at least the Middle Ages. The troubadours and trouvères are credited with major developments in music and poetry, though they were largely imitating practices developed first in Islamic courts. Even instruments commonly found in “western” ensembles like the violin, guitar and lute have eastern ancestry.

Le Baroque Nomade, led by conductor and flautist Jean-Christophe Frisch, emphasizes continuity between musical traditions rather than difference. The ensemble allows audiences to hear that an Italian sonata is not so different from a Turkish folk song, challenging notions of self and the other.

Through imaginative improvisation, the players were able to show that even within single works, composers and musicians have always been free to blend musical styles. One of the exciting things about improvised styles is that every performance is unique, molded by the individual musicians, as well an evening’s particular energy both on and off stage.

The most virtuosic and tasteful playing came from the hands of viola da gambist Andrea Linos. During the English cantata Daphne that opened the concert, even Frisch smiled at the sound Linos’ lyrical divisions on the gamba. The young player’s technical skill and musicality stood out amongst his older colleagues, whether he was taking a solo during an extended group improvisation or playing the bass line during composed pieces.

Percussionist Pierre Rigopoulos sounded splendid during an improvised Turkish taq’sīm, making his sing and speak by striking different areas of the drum’s membrane and shell. I enjoyed Rémi Cassaigne on the theorbo and the guitar, though wish he was given a few extra minutes to solo considering the chance to hear plucked strings in an appropriately sized venue is rare.

At other times throughout the evening, the ensemble’s willingness to experiment was less successful. Frisch’s embellishments, for example, were often fussy and covered soprano Cyrille Gerstenhaber’s light voice.

The most over-the-top decision was during an improvisation on the famous tune La Folia de España, almost as common during the Baroque as a twelve-bar blues is today. Gerstenhaber added words to the melody, personifying the La Folia itself, and danced about the stage with castanets.

Though I too am attracted to the music of the Baroque because it invites deep and creative engagement through improvisation, sometimes less is more. The ensemble’s occasional histrionics distracted me, though engaged other audience members less familiar with music of the time and improvisatory practices.

The most fascinating aspect of Friday’s concert was the opportunity to hear the fluidity between what some might consider quite contrasting repertoire. Though Le Baroque Nomade is by no means the first or only ensemble to blend musical traditions of centuries past, I hope more musicians are encouraged to follow suit and explore music outside the classical canon in order to highlight cross-cultural connections.