At the end of a frenzied day of performances across the city, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago concluded Wednesday’s Bach Marathon with a free concert of all six Brandenburg Concertos before a large audience at the Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue. Earlier in the day, the Civic had played these works at schools and community centers around town, including a mid-day concert of all the concertos at the Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza.
The Civic Orchestra of Chicago is the professional training ensemble for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Working with renowned cellist and CSO Creative Consultant Yo-Yo Ma, the Civic gives several free performances every year throughout Chicago area. 2016 is the third year in a row for the staging of this marathon. This year’s event was co-sponsored by the People’s Music School, an institution that, since 1976, has provided free music training in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.
The six ensemble pieces that Johann Sebastian Bach dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt are the composer’s most enduring musical legacies. Each concerto is scored for a different grouping of soloists and backing instruments, which can be played by one or several instruments per part. A performance of all six concertos together, even in a chamber music setting, requires a large pool of musicians, virtually a full orchestra, although the entire group may never be onstage at once. But not just anyone qualifies. The technical demands, even for those playing back-up parts, can be extreme. The Brandenburg Concertos are an excellent way for an orchestra to show off its breadth and depth of talent, and the Civic had plenty on display for nearly three hours on Wednesday night.
The gothic setting of the 4th Presbyterian Church can feel quite formal, but the performers were very relaxed, wearing jeans and grey Civic Orchestra of Chicago t-shirts. On such a small stage, performing all six concertos required carefully choreographed set changes, which lengthened the normal breaks between each work and contributed to the loose atmosphere. Although the score calls for recorders, viole de gambas, and other instruments that are archaic in today’s orchestra, only updated instruments were used.
Instead of a Brandenburg Concerto, Wednesday night’s concert started with Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in d-minor, BWV 565, in an arrangement for brass quintet by Frederick Mills—which must have felt strange to anyone used to hearing it on this venue’s massive pipe organ. It was a delight to hear this work’s runs and trills split between two trumpets, a horn, a trombone, and a tuba, instead of the organ’s keyboards and pedals. The instruments played off one another with such seamlessness, someone listening from another room might not have known that the melodic runs were being played by different instruments taking turns.
The performances of the concertos, while generally good, didn’t start out well. First up was Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F-major, BWV 1046, which requires one of the larger ensembles of strings, horns, oboes, and a bassoon. My least favorite of the six concertos, this particular performance, while rousing, was rather jagged, with the players struggling to start and end phrases simultaneously. The horns were challenged with some of the more difficult passages.
These problems all went away with the next work, which also happens to be my favorite: Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050. The soloists were particularly effective, especially the Civic’s regular keyboardist Soo-Young Kim, who during the marathon offered her first-ever public performances on a harpsichord by playing a nearly perfect rendition of the 3-minute long, virtuosic solo in the opening movement. It was truly delightful.
Up next was Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G major, BWV 1048. Although it could be played with fewer instruments, this version had 20 string players crammed onto the small stage. This excellent, meaty performance was particularly noteworthy because Yo-Yo Ma himself sat in the back of the cello section. One can only wonder what the ensemble cellists must have felt like to have the world’s best cellist playing along behind them, breathing down their necks. By now, however, they’re used to it. Ma does this routinely, and he’s able to blend right in without stealing any of the spotlight.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat major, BWV 1051, led off the second half. This unusual work features a harpsichord and six parts for strings, none of which are violins. Having deep-throated violas taking the lead, passing melodies back and forth, creates a darker mood than is typical. The second movement is played by a string quartet comprised of two violas, a cello, and a bass, which sounds very different from the traditional quartet headed by two violins. The harpsichord part is odd in that is plays rather infrequently. This very crisp performance was some of evening’s best ensemble playing, with the lead violas interweaving with the other players smoothly.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047, was up next. This work features a quartet of soloists comprised of violin, flute, oboe, and a high-pitched trumpet. On Wednesday, the first three soloists were definitely on, but the trumpeter was flat and missed most of the high notes. The performance was otherwise quite good and lively.
The marathon ended with Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049, one of the loveliest works of the set. The soloists, a violin and two flutes playing parts originally scored for two recorders, were magical during the scale like passages that, especially on the violin, can be very detailed and flowery. The soloists captured the drive of this music free from any blemish.
The Civic Orchestra of Chicago performs next on Tuesday, December 13, 8:00 pm, at the Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave. Teddy Abrams will conduct a program that includes modern works by Samuel Adams and Aaron Copeland. For more information, check out: http://cso.org/ticketsandevents/browse-performances/?category=Civic%20Orchestra#sthash.wkCJVk7W.dpuf