In the 2019-2020 concert season, the classical music world was absorbed in Beethoven250, the celebration of the 250th anniversary of that master’s birth. As the calendar flipped from February to March 2020, I was treated to five straight nights of Beethoven symphonies and piano trios. Given what happened shortly thereafter, there is no better music with which to start a pandemic lock down.
Fast forward to Friday night. The Bach Week Festival was having the second and final concert of its COVID-19 shortened series before a smaller audience of family members and invited guests. If Ludwig van Beethoven was a great way to start a year of stay-at-home isolation, Johann Sebastian Bach was a great way end it. It felt marvelous to resume one of my biggest passions, experiencing live music in a real, in-person auditorium. It was an aural and visual reminder that nothing in this world should be taken for granted.
Friday’s concert at the Music Institute of Chicago’s Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston featured baroque music that highlighted the talent of Matthew Lipman, a Chicago-area native who makes a sonorous viola sound bright and cheery. His playing shows that, with the exception of Mozart and Bach, most top-tier classical music composers missed great opportunities by ignoring the aural qualities that a solo viola can bring to a concerto.
The concert opened with Bach Week Festival Music Director Richard Webster giving a lovely run-through of Bach’s Toccata in F Major, BWV 540, on Nichols Concert Hall’s powerful organ. It opens with a charming swarm of notes that sound like butterflies over a bass drone. It then shifts to loud, majestic notes on the pedals. Webster gave it the appropriate variety of touches and feelings that gave real meaning to the title Toccata.
Matthew Lipman next took the stage with the George Philipp Telemann’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra in G-Major, TWV51:G9. Bach and Telemann were contemporaries, and during their lifetime Telemann was the more renown. To modern audiences, Bach is listed amongst the top tier composers, while Telemann is hardly remembered. This concerto illustrates why that’s a shame.
Members of the Bach Week Festival Orchestra made up of Robert and Sheila Hanford on violins, Melissa Trier Kirk on viola, Mark Brandfonbrener on cello, Collins Trier on bass, and David Schrader on harpsichord backed up Lipman, who made the concerto sing. Vitality pervaded the performance, starting with the opening, very slow Largo that never dragged. Lipman’s refined playing interacted well with other players, especially with the first violin in the second movement Allegro, and the violins and viola in the dainty Andante. The concerto ended with a rapid Presto, but Lipman gave a wonderful encore with another Presto by Telemann, Fantasia No. 10 in D Major, TWV 40:23.
The only sag in the evening was the first work following the intermission, Bach’s Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra in d-minor, BWV 1052, a challenging piece, even on good night. Given the harpsichord’s dynamic limitations, it is easy to be drowned out in the swirling sounds of the other instruments. On Friday, however, the same members of the Back Week Festival Orchestra, with harpsichordist David Schrader taking the lead, offered a nice blend that was clear and balanced. Bach writes some wonderful interplay between harpsichord and the other instruments, and the passage in the finale with the cello and bass were especially memorable.
However, Schrader was a bit off, which was notable in the solo cadenzas, where the counterpoint melodies sounded jumbled and the fingering was rhythmically uneven. Also, in this particular concerto, the outer movements are interesting, but the middle movement can languish. In hearing music of which I am not especially fond, I am always seeking a performance that revives my interest. That was not the case Friday night.
The final piece of the evening perked things up significantly. Lipman shared the limelight with violist Beatrice Chen in one of Bach’s most wonderfully unusual masterpieces, Brandenburg Concerto No 6, in B-flat Major, BWV 1051. In addition to harpsichord, the last of the six Brandenburg Concertos is scored only for the lower strings: two violas, cello, bass, and two viola da gambas, a six-string, bowed instrument that went out of fashion soon after Bach’s era. While Anna Steinhoff and Russell Wagner glittered on the viola da gambas, Lipman and Chen had a lively time on the violas. All of the players marvelously meshed as the melodies and counterpoint passed seamlessly between them. The waltz tempo finale was a perfect denouement to an enjoyable evening that hadn’t been possible for almost 15 months. Kudos Bach Week Festival! It was a great treat to attend a real, live performance in person.