One of the minor mysteries of New York's musical scene has been the absence of a world-class resident period-instrument ensemble. Such groups have long flourished in Boston and San Francisco, not to mention throughout Europe, and they all attract enthusiastic audiences here whenever they come to visit. We did have, briefly, a home-based period-instrument orchestra a few years ago -- the Classical Band -- but despite generous funding, much musical talent in the ranks, and a high-profile early-music specialist from Britain (Trevor Pinnock) on the podium, that whole enterprise soon collapsed. Perhaps the newly formed New York Collegium will have better luck -- the initial omens are certainly favorable. The orchestra's president is Michael Feldman, who steered the Orchestra of St. Luke's to prominence more than twenty years ago; Gustav Leonhardt, a Dutch harpsichordist and conductor who is one of the movement's founding fathers, serves as musical director; and the musicians, among the city's best freelancers, are all experts in historical performance practices.
The programming also aims to be exploratory -- no Mozart-symphony cycles or Bach Brandenburg Concertos but unusual vocal and instrumental music drawn from the Baroque and classical repertory that more conventionally staffed orchestras tend to ignore. Beyond that, the Collegium plans to invite guest conductors and soloists who are specialists in the field but are mainly known here only through their recordings. I missed last month's inaugural concert in Town Hall under Leonhardt's direction, but the group's second program, at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, put the Collegium's goals to the test in a tasty program of French sacred music from the time of Louis XIV.
In charge of the vocal and orchestral forces was the young French harpsichordist and director Christophe Rousset, the current darling of the period-instrument community, and the program instructively contrasted two liturgical works composed around 1700: Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Missa Assumpta est Maria and André Campra's Requiem. With its pungent harmonic richness, textural diversity, and fastidious workmanship, the Charpentier Mass holds the ear in every measure -- even when presented in the gently contoured but subtly nuanced manner Rousset prefers, so different from William Christie's more robust treatment of this music with Les Arts Florissants. A prolific opera composer, Campra, like Mozart and Verdi after him, discovered a ready-made drama in the Requiem text. His more classically disciplined response is no less effective, and the Collegium performed this carefully calibrated score superlatively. A sophisticated new musical organization has clearly arrived, dedicated to an important repertory that would otherwise receive scant attention hereabouts.