Friday, February 15, 2002
A capacity crowd filled St. John's Cathedral for friday night's Bach Festival Concert, which comprised three works from the crowd-pleasing end of the Baroque musical spectrum.
Bach's Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1 and 3 made up the first half of the concert. The second half was devoted to Telemann's Overture in F, also known as "Alster Echo."
The Brandenburg Concertos are among Bach's most-performed and best-loved works because each is a concentrated study in the sonorities that can be produced by blending small groups of instruments.
They also explore all the possible ways groups of instruments can play back and forth, in contrast with one another. Finally, these concertos challenge the performers, because every instrumentalist has a turn at being the soloist.
Bach Festival audiences have come to expect, and cherish the impeccable performances Gunther Schuller draws from his musicians. The audience wasn't disapointed Friday night.
The first Brandenburg features strings, bassoon, oboes, horns and harpsichord. It's signature is a simple rhythmic motif - short notes played simultaneously against long notes - introduced in the first movement. Schuller had the strings articulate the short notes so they sounded separately, but didn't bounce or drag. The effect was deliciously delicate.
Over this delicate tracery, Bach wrote one beautiful instrument duo or tio after another, and every one was executed perfectly in this performance.
Especially beautiful were the melodies for combinations of oboes, oboes and bassoon, and oboes and violin, played wonderfully in the "piccolo" violin register by Concertmaster Kelly Ferris.
In the third movement, bassoonist Lynne Feller-Marshall accompanied oboist Keith Thomas and Barbara Cantlon as they played a perfectly ornamented duet. The sound of the oboes soared over all the other instruments in a way that made it seem as if the cathedral had been designed as an oboe performance space.
Delicate as it is, Bach's first Brandenburg Concerto is beefy compared with the third, which is scored for just three violins, three violas, three cellos, and a harpsichord. One mark of a fine performance is that the audience hears new things in pieces the thought they knew by heart. That moment came, for me, with harpsichordist Ilton Wjuniski's improvised solo, which created a harmonic transition from the first to the second movement.
There were also rich-sounding violin and viola solos, but a few excruciating intonation glitches.
With Telemann's Overture in F, the program veered in another direction. Bach's serious genius produced gorgeous instrumental sonorities. Telemann's occasionally quirky genius produced outrageous ones. Schuller described the piece as a "tour de force of orchestration and ingenuity."
"It belongs to the genre of suites that is imitative and parodistic and leads to the great tone poems of Liszt," he explained.
The nine movements of this overture/suite explore a jumble of mythological and pastoral themes, from the Greek goddess Pallas slaying a giant, to swans swimming gracefully on the Alster Lake near Hamburg. Horn players Roger Logan, Charles Karschney, Verne Windham and Judith James did heavy duty, punching out Pallas' rapid cannon shots, trilling in imitation of "concertizing frogs and crows," and playing muted whisperings in imitation of echoes.
The effect that got the audience chuckling was the frog croak as created by string players sliding their fingers down their fingerboards.
The movement titled "Village Music of the Alster Shepards" showed that Baroque humor could have an edge. It was full of "bad" playing - blaring noise, "missed" notes and crashing dissonances between strings and winds. The musical equivalent of a political cartoon, whose wit partly transcends the centuries, but also is partly dependent on the times.
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