Watson draws fiery playing in varied Baroque Band program

Thu Jan 16, 2014 at 4:08 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Ian Watson conducted Baroque Band Wednesday night at the Grainger Ballroom.
Ian Watson conducted Baroque Band Wednesday night at the Grainger Ballroom.

Garry Clarke is on hiatus from Baroque Band this season, with the ensemble’s founder and artistic director handing off conducting duties to guest leaders.

This transitional Baroque Band season began in mixed fashion last September with veteran violinist Simon Standage in a rather overstuffed program of violin concertos.

With Baroque ensemble music less is often more. Though Wednesday night’s program in Symphony Center’s Grainger Ballroom spanned only ninety minutes with intermission, it’s unlikely anyone in attendance felt cheated.

Conductor Ian Watson elicited fiery, largely polished and often quite exciting playing from the Baroque Band musicians, and Wednesday’s program served as a model of what a successful Baroque program should be.

Whereas Standage was largely content to lead with his solo violin playing, Watson was a much more involved presence. The English conductor directed (standing) at the harpsichord and his alert, incisive yet flexible direction drew superbly vital and engaged performances.

As the amiable Watson noted, the difficulty with Baroque programs is that often much of the music tends to sound alike (a problem for those writing about such concerts as well). Fortunately, Watson presented a skillfully varied lineup of works that maintained interest.

Vivaldi’s Sinfonia “Il coro de la muse” led things off in lively fashion with Watson drawing tight ensemble and spirited string playing in the outer movements. The charming Andante offered light and piquant contrast (“puppet theater” Watson aptly called it).

Francesco Durante (1684-1755) is not a name one encounters every day and his Concerto a cinque in A major proved a delightful discovery. The whirling figures and laughter-like chords of the lightning Presto opening sounds like a quirky Italian cousin of C.P.E. Bach. The strings offered neat expressive poise in the minor-key Largo and brought dynamic energy to the leaping lines of the closing Allegro.

Francesco Geminiani’s Concert Grosso in E minor offered weightier stuff, with the players plumbing a brooding, even tragic dimension in the Adagio movement.

It was nice to hear music of the English Baroque composer Charles Avison for a change. Yet while his Concerto Grosso in D minor is attractive, it loses some of the instrumental brilliance of the Scarlatti keyboard sonata it draws from, although concertmaster Joan Plana brought ample bravura to his breakout solos.

Plana was also to the fore in Locatelli’s Concerto Grosso in D major, throwing off his solo virtuosic bursts with infectious elan although there was some fleeting violin disarray among his colleagues in the final movement.

As Watson noted, the ground theme for Geminiani’s La Folia provided material for several Baroque composers. Geminiani’s setting remains the finest, a spacious set of variations exploring a surprising range of expression.

Watson clearly has the measure of this music and drew some of the most refined, finely graded playing ever heard from Baroque Band. Each variation was vividly characterized, with the players bringing warm melancholy to the slower sections and fizzing virtuosity to the brilliant passages. The lightning solo fireworks batted back and forth between Plana and cellist Anna Steinhoff ended the evening in thrilling fashion.

It’s not clear where the future of Baroque Band may lead right now, but let’s hope it includes Ian Watson as a regular guest.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Augustana Lutheran Church in Hyde Park. baroqueband.org

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Watson draws fiery playing in varied Baroque Band program”

  1. Posted Jan 16, 2014 at 10:21 pm by Roland Buck

    “the difficulty with Baroque programs is that often much of the music tends to sound alike”

    This is, to a great extent, a problem the Baroque Band created for itself this season by programing music for bowed strings only (excluding the harpsichord, of course). Including some works that includes winds and/or vocal music would largely correct that.
    More generally, variety in Baroque performances tends to be limited by the fact that the programs tend to concentrate on the second half of the Baroque, from the later 17th through the middle of the 18th century and that the earlier Baroque music from the first half of the 17th century, which is quite different is ignored. For example, the music of Claudio Monteverdi or Giovanni Gabrieli sounds very different than that of Handel or Vivaldi. A broader coverage of the entire Baroque era would greatly improve variety.

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