Chamber Music Society closes year with fresh and gratifying Bach

Thu Dec 21, 2017 at 12:00 pm

By Michael Cameron

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

If you’ve ever felt rejected or ignored after an offering of your best work, consider the plight of J.S. Bach.

At the height of his powers, and pining for a new position, Bach submitted a magnificent copy of six of his finest concertos to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg. He correctly assumed that his days were numbered at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen, and believed that this richly colored assortment of works would seal the deal. Yet not a peep was heard from the Margrave, and his name was immortalized not for any political accomplishment, but for his rejection of one the finest creations in musical history.

Familiarity may breed contempt, but the six Brandenburg concertos have never lost their power to enchant since they were dusted off and entered into the canon in middle of the 19th century. In the committed hands of the virtuosos of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Wednesday at Harris Theater, these works seemed as fresh and gratifying as ever.

Historically informed ensembles have long co-opted these and other Baroque masterpieces, and for early music connoisseurs in the audience, the unapologetically lush style of string playing must have seemed mildly anachronistic. It has become common practice for players of modern instruments to make accommodations to period performance scholarship, but the Lincoln Center players were having none of it. Indeed, they embraced a sonic aesthetic that didn’t vary considerably from what will likely be heard in their Harris Theater appearance next month in works of Dvorak and Brahms.

Stylistic nit-picking aside, the ensemble’s survey was nearly always persuasive and ultimately compelling, beginning with a well-groomed reading of the Fifth Concerto. Even with the presence of solo flute and violin parts, the fifth is in fact a harpsichord concerto, the first ever in the genre and almost certainly the finest. Kenneth Weiss was the admirable soloist, bringing unassailable technique and clarity of line to Bach’s lavish first movement cadenza. He was no less impressive in his partnership with violinist Cho-Liang Lin and flutist Robert Langevin in the second movement, providing sensitive support and understated rhythmic flexibility.

The First Concerto is the least performed, due in part to the difficulty of locating a trio of oboe players fit for the job. James Austin Smith, Randall Ellis, and Stephen Taylor were a delight from beginning to end, and horn players Jennifer Montone and Julie Landsman intoned their hunting calls with gleaming brilliance. Violinist Daniel Philips led the ensemble with verve and exactitude, though he imbued the final set of three simple Baroque dances with excessive weight.

Violinist Danbi Um provided youthful vigor in a sprightly reading of the Second Concerto, and flutist Carol Wincenc’s silvery tone easily negotiated Bach’s disjunct melodic lines. But the most memorable solo turns came via piccolo trumpet player Brandon Ridenour and oboist Smith. The later spun deliciously seductive lyrical lines in the middle movement, and Ridenour negotiated Bach’s fiendish high-wire act in the finale with electrifying precision.

If violinist Lin was unduly cautious in interpretation and Phillips inappropriately lush in tone, the ensemble chose the perfect advocate in Kristin Lee for the Fourth Concerto, among the flashiest of Baroque fiddle concertos even as the instrument shares solo duties with a pair of flutes. Her sound projected more decisively than the other violinists, without the romantic indulgences that occasionally distracted from the string playing in the other concertos. The first movement suffered from some minor ensemble issues, but Lee’s captivating advocacy and the uncanny synchronicity of Langevin and Wincenc made for an enthralling performance.

Given the vivid colors of Bach’s orchestration in the concertos with winds, it might have been unwise to program the two all-string works at the end. Yet the Third Concerto largely worked, even without the presence of individual protagonists that are usually the focus of the genre. The account was marred by excessive legato and the virtual obliteration of the middle “movement” single measure adagio, courtesy of lingering applause after the first movement, a distracting behavior that was repeated after nearly every movement. But brisk tempos and the unbridled exuberance of the 11 players carried the day.

If the scoring of the Fourth Concerto (with its egalitarian trios of violins, violas, and cellos) sports a sonic profile with rich middles and lows, the final concerto omits high tessitura instruments of any kind. The best performances adhere to Bach’s use of two violas da gamba instead of the two cellos substituted here. But violists Yura Lee and Richard O’Neill made the most of their moment in the spotlight, throwing themselves into Bach’s celebration of arpeggios with gusto and unwavering accuracy. The pair savored their exchange of lyrical solo passages in the middle movement, but solo/accompaniment division of labor wasn’t clearly observed. An effervescent account of the jolly third movement made for a spirited concert finale.

The hardest working members of the ensemble were the splendid continuo trio of Weiss, cellist Colin Carr, and double bassist Joseph Conyers. Their sensitive and supportive contribution was involved and unwavering. 

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