With renewed Harris Theater contract, Chamber Music Society serves up brisk and vital Bach

Thu Dec 19, 2013 at 12:56 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bach's complete Brandenburg Concertos were performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Wednesday night at the Harris Theater.
Bach’s complete Brandenburg Concertos were performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Wednesday night at the Harris Theater.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center offered the complete Brandenburg Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach Wednesday night at the Harris Theater, populist and appealing music to warm an audience on a chilly night.

Before the concert Harris president Michael Tiknis and CMSLC co-artistic director Wu Han took the stage to announce that the Harris Theater has renewed the New York organization’s contract for another three years. In addition to cementing their position as the resident downtown Chicago chamber ensemble through 2017, beginning next year the Chamber Music Society series will expand to five programs each season from the current three.

It’s heartening that the Harris Theater is demonstrating such a strong commitment to chamber music, and that Wednesday’s Bach program drew such a large turnout.

Still, one can’t help having mixed feelings that such a prominent venue is bestowing such high-profile patronage on a big-box New York ensemble when there are scores of worthy Chicago chamber groups that could benefit from this kind of exposure. One can imagine how local musicians in attendance Wednesday night felt hearing Wu Han boast that local audiences now have “the best chamber music on the market,” as if Chicago is some kind of cultural backwoods for classical music.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is made up of several first-rate artists, and it was especially inspiring to see the fine cohesion between seasoned veterans like flutist Ransom Wilson and violinist Daniel Phillips alongside younger players like violinists Joseph Lim and Kristin Lee (the latter a sub for Jorja Fleezanis).

We’re past the point when performances played on “modern” instruments, as SMCLC does, are musically suspect. But aren’t we also past the point where flutes are used in the Second and Fourth Concertos instead of the recorders Bach asks for? That kind of old-school approach feels jarringly anachronistic in 2013.

That said, the Chamber Music Society offered largely polished Bach performances that were vital, brisk and scrupulously balanced, The clear solo highlight came in the opening Second Concerto with trumpeter David Washburn breezing through his stratospheric part with stylish ease, as if it were child’s play. There was also graceful interplay in the same work’s Andante between violinist Lee, flutist Wilson and oboist James Austin Smith.

But there were also times in the concertos’ outer movements when the playing settled into a well-drilled efficiency with a distinct lack of charm. Phillips’ fitfully dry violin timbre in the First Concerto wasn’t the most beguiling tone and the unsmiling concluding dances could have used a lighter touch. Pedja Muzijevic’s blankly mechanical account of the famous harpsichord solo in Concerto No. 5 makes one wonder how the romantic piano concerto ever descended from this famous breakout inspiration.

After a rather dogged first movement of the Sixth Concerto, violists Paul Neubauer and Cynthia Phelps brought relaxed expressive poise to the slow movement and incisive vigor to the finale. And while the Adagio of the Fourth Concerto went with a respectful blandness, Alexander Sitkovetsky’s fizzing violin playing brought a welcome spark and personality that the other performances would have benefited from.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presents a French program March 18 at the Harris Theater. harristheaterchicago.org

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “With renewed Harris Theater contract, Chamber Music Society serves up brisk and vital Bach”

  1. Posted Dec 20, 2013 at 3:41 pm by Cindy Serikaku

    Thank you for your comments about Chicago-as-cultural-backwater. I definitely felt offended by Wu Han’s remarks, as if we Chicagoans needed to airlift New York musicians in order to hear “proper” chamber music!

  2. Posted Dec 22, 2013 at 12:43 pm by Hudson Fair

    No doubt that the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is a fine group with worthy programming. Why is the Harris Theatre presenting them?

    I would prefer to have the Chicago Chamber Musicians collaborate with Pacifica Quartet or an organization like University of Chicago Presents organize and curate a chamber music series at the downtown venue.

    For decades Chicago groups have provided top top music writ small and now is no exception. Does the Harris management feel that they need a prestigious name to sell tickets?

  3. Posted Feb 01, 2014 at 8:18 am by Nancy Hammond

    Very happy the Lincoln Center group is here.

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