Moving On: William Christie Takes the
18th-century Wheel at Yale in New York
Back in the days when William Christie spent most of his time in France, weaving the gossamer textures of his 17th-century opera productions with les Arts Florissants, he seemed content to reveal the glories of that underexposed repertoire abroad, with forays to BAM only now and then. He acquired French nationality, and became a Commandeur dans l’Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur and an Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. There were occasional rumors of a fearsome temperament backstage, but always offset by the truly Olympian quality of his performances. Essentially, they were perfect.
But things change. Recently Mr. Christie has been spending more time at home, conducting locally, and giving master classes in early music. He made his Met debut with Cosi fan Tutte in 2010, and led the Baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island there earlier this season. Having audited one of his master classes, I am pleased to report that he bestowed not one criticism on his excellent graduate students and spent his time onstage listening, and actually beaming (he had been working with them for a week beforehand, and no criticism was needed). And having seen The Enchanted Island (cf. post of January 23), it’s clear that Christie’s time travel to more recent centuries is effortless, and no less Olympian. Perhaps he has mellowed (except in his pursuit of perfection).
Maintaining its tradition of imaginative programming, Yale in New York tapped Christie (a one-time Yale student) to lead an all-Handel evening at Zankel Hall, featuring the 1737 Anthem for the Funeral of Queen Caroline, The Ways of Zion Do Mourn. Handel had been close to the enlightened queen for decades, and his elegy expresses what sounds like genuine sorrow. (Its first choral theme was later used by Mozart in his own Requiem mass.) To close the concert, in a sort of reverse royal bookend, Christie chose Handel’s Coronation Anthem III, The King Shall Rejoice—written for the Coronation of George II and Queen Caroline ten years earlier. No one can match Handel when it comes to a joyful noise, and the Anthem’s concluding Alleluia points firmly to the Messiah’s Hallelujah chorus of 1742. The audience didn’t rise to its feet, but cheered happily when Christie offered an encore.
Perhaps most of Christie’s fearsomeness remains in the past, but his technique retains the imperative “look at me!” to his forces, and look at him they do; every eye of every music-maker locked on him from first note to last. And with good reason: The Philharmonia of Yale and the Yale Choral Artists were ravishing, producing quicksilver shifts in tempo and volume in a performance both dramatic and refined, at a level seldom heard in this repertoire. Even more impressive: the quartet of soloists who sang without the chorus in some sections, faced away from Christie; yet so confident had they become that there were no slips. And according to what I’ve been told, there were no monitors, either! It was a case of sidelong glances from the singers, and from conductor as well. And it gave new meaning to the phrase “watching his back” which, if you were a member of the quartet, was clearly as eloquent as the rest of the man.
What is certain is that to watch Christie from the audience is to attend a master class in conducting. His movements are muscular and graceful, but unfussy and extremely precise. Like all great musicians, his focus is absolute; and every cue for every change in texture and dynamics is exactly where, and when, it needs to be. It’s all part of the landscape of perfection he so comfortably inhabits. Should Mr. Christie opt to continue moving up through the centuries, it will be interesting to see what he makes of later music…
Meantime, you can still enjoy the final concert in this season’s series at Zankel Hall: On Sunday April 1st at 7:30, Yale in New York will explore the low notes of high art in De Profundis: The Deep End.
It’s a terrific program that mixes the familiar and the obscure. Where else will you be able to savor Schütz’s piece for four sackbuts and bass voice, or Penderecki’s Capriccio for solo tuba? And there’s much, much more, plus an all-star cast of Yalies past, present, and faculty, with surprise guests. Just bear in mind that it’s April Fool’s Day and be ready for whatever comes. Read all about it at yale in new york