Ars Lyrica Houston ended another successful season under artistic director Matthew Dirst at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Their final fare? A vivacious sampling of compositions inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ famous windmill-tilting knight, Don Quixote.
As a rule, Ars Lyrica performs music from the 17th and 18th centuries on period instruments, and Dirst, doubling Sunday as both conductor and harpsichordist, has a gift for assembling talent. This program was no exception.
Highlighted performers included soprano Dominique McCormick, whose superlative vocals complemented a wonderful expressiveness and impeccable comic timing. McCormick's interpretation revealed natural acting talent, and it was thrilling to watch her command the stage. Guitarist and lutenist Richard Savino demonstrated his Grammy-nominated versatility as he shifted from huge lutes to a range of guitars that hinted at the Spanish source material. Violinist Kurt Johnson of the Houston Symphony also proved his stellar range across the sprawling program that included Quixote-themed works by Jose Marin, Henry Purcell, Jan Dismas Zelenka, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, and a fantastic finale of Georg Philipp Telemann’s Don Quixote Suite.
The program drove home the point that art begets art, and it was fascinating to see the international spectrum of composers who were all inspired by Don Quixote and other characters from what's considered the first modern novel. From the English Henry Purcell there was the delightful Incidental Music to Don Quixote, with such fare as “Lads and Lasses” and “From Rosy Bowers,” both delivered with aplomb by McCormick. One of the highlights for me was also the dream-like “Hypocondrie” by Zelenka, under the rubric of songs labeled “Melancholia & Other Enchantments,” along with the witty and engaging “Chaconne” as the final excerpt from de Boismortier's “Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse.”
Whether ecstatic or mournful, the entire program had a “joie de vivre” that captivated and thrilled from beginning to end. Turnout was respectable, sure, but every seat in Zilkha Hall should have been filled. Ars Lyrica is that impressive, and there was never a lull in this whimsical and energetic variety of music inspired by the hapless hero, his sidekick Sancho, and notable female characters that inhabit Cervantes’ literary world. Don Quixote may have had unlikely adventures, and his obsessions with chivalric romance may seem easy to make fun of, but the music his character inspired does not fail to move, as the themes of delusion and unrequited love never truly expire.
Ars Lyrica will be back in September for a season focusing on “Artful Women,” with a series of concerts highlighting what Dirst calls “female musical pioneers.”