Review: Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Frolics Through the Brandenburg Concertos
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center gave a lively performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos at the Harris Theater on Wednesday night. This is an annual holiday event. The last time I attended was before the pandemic in December 2019. It gives me another reminder of how lucky we are to hear this music every year. On Wednesday they succeeded in accomplishing everything one hopes to experience in a performance of this challenging music.
The six Brandenburg concertos are some of Bach’s most unusual musical legacies. Each requires a different group of players, with the only constant being the backing continuo of harpsichord, cello, and upright bass. Each concerto has a unique group of soloists with different players in the larger ensemble. A performance of all six concertos requires 21 musicians. As few as seven performers might be onstage at any given time, and half of the musicians perform only once or twice the entire evening.
Not just anyone can play this music. The technical demands, even on those playing backup, can be extreme. CMS keeps a large collection of musicians available to perform these works in one night. A few of the players on Wednesday were also onstage in 2019. One notable addition was a Chicago native, flutist Demarre McGill. He was actually pictured in the photo gracing the front of the 2019 program, even though he did not play that evening.
This year CMS played the concertos in order. Except for the cellos and harpsichord, the performers were standing, which allowed a lot more animation than when they’re all seated. They also grouped the different instrument types facing one another onstage. The strings were usually on stage right, while the horns and winds were on stage left. Since there is no conductor, this setup allowed the musicians to exchange visual cues helpful to keeping everything together.
They were clearly having fun, which came through in the liveliness of the performance. At times it frolicked. They could feel how well they sounded, and they embraced several times after the performances were finished.
Using 13 players, Concerto No. 1 in F-major has the largest ensemble. With three oboes and a bassoon, it has the most woodwinds. It is also the only one to have French horns, with two. The score calls for a small, piccolo violin, which was energetically played by Daniel Phillips. As was the case throughout the concert, CMS had excellent intonation and a clear aural balance between the instruments. Everything gelled.
Especially good was the Menuet-Trio-Polonaise finale, a strange movement that can sometimes sag. This was not a problem on Wednesday. The trio of James Austin Smith and Randall Ellis on oboe and Peter Kolkay on bassoon were magnificent, as was the larger ensemble in response.
Concerto No. 2 in F-major often poses the biggest challenge with balance because the piccolo trumpet can easily overpower the other soloists and ensemble. Repeating his excellent performance from 2019, David Washburn blended when he needed to, and shone when he was solo. He fit in well with Stephen Taylor on oboe, Tara Helen O’Connor on flute, and Stella Chen on violin. Nobody was drowned out.
In Concerto No. 3 in G-major, Bach uses strings on top of the continuo in a fascinating way. Three violins, three violas, and three cellos function both as an orchestra section and as individual soloists playing separate parts. Ensemble tightness was evident as the sections passed melodies amongst one another or backed up solo passages. This concerto is also unusual in that the middle movement consists of just two chords played very slowly. Daniel Phillips added a brief violin cadenza. In several places Bach has the first violin play a solo, which then cascades all the way down through the cellos. It’s a lovely effect.
Following intermission, the last three concertos required the fewest number of players. Concerto No. 4 in G-Major features two flutes and violin as the soloists. Using melodies that bounce around, Bach made the flutes sound like butterflies in the wind, and McGill and O’Connor were a great team. The violin really comes out strong toward the end, with an engrossingly virtuosic part. As he did in 2019, Arnaud Sussman came through big on Wednesday night.
In Concerto No. 5 in D-major, the soloists were Ani Kavafian on violin, McGill on flute, and Hyeyeon Park on harpsichord, the only time a harpsichord is played as a solo instrument in the Brandenburg Concertos. This is my favorite of the Brandenburg Concertos because it boasts one of the most amazing instrumental solos in all of music: a four-minute harpsichord cadenza near the end of the first movement.
Park gave this labored solo a very labored approach. It works best when the performer seems to struggle, as if Park is pushing a giant boulder up a large hill. The effect of it reaching the pinnacle, only to roll off on the other side, marvelously captured the drama of this music.
The evening ended with Concerto no. 6 in B-flat-major, which has the strangest instrumental arrangement of all the concertos. In addition to the continuo harpsichord, it only has lower-ranged strings: two violas, one cello, one double bass, and two viola da gambas, an archaic instrument for which cellos are typically substituted, as was the case on Wednesday night.
The benefit of not using violins is the rarely heard predominance given to the violas, which have dancing and interweaving melodic parts that can be very canonical. The animated performance by violists Lawrance Dutton, who was a member of the now-disbanded Emerson String Quartet, and Matthew Lipman, a Chicago native, was delightful.
Two people not on stage on Wednesday evening were the CMS artistic directors Wu Han and David Finckel. At the next CMS performance at Harris Theater, they and other CMS musicians will be performing Debussy, Adolphe, Shostakovich, and Dvořák. Thursday, January 24, at 7:30pm. For more information click here.
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A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.