Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bach Festival Opener: The Brandenburg Concertos

The Spivey Hall 2009 Spring Bach Festival opens this Sunday with a feast of Johann Sebastian's most popular instrumental works: all six of the Brandenburg Concertos, performed by London's Academy of Ancient Music under the direction of harpsichordist Richard Egarr, who's featured as a soloist in the Fifth Brandenburg.

The timing is perfect for our Spring Bach Festival. The flowering trees on the Clayton State University campus are resplendently in bloom. And the ducks, geese and swans are nesting (there are five large duck eggs in the grass outside the box office entrance that we're watching carefully) -- so life is renewed once again, and we can celebrate with some glorious music by Bach.

The Brandenburg Concertos are such buoyant, high-spirited pieces. They're all in major keys, with outer movements either Allegro or livelier, and the writing for the instruments is full of character.

The Academy of Ancient Music is on a nationwide tour this month performing the Brandenburgs, and yesterday there was a review in The New York Times of their Carnegie Hall performance in Zankel Hall. I don't entirely understand Allan Kozinn's choice to dedicate one-third of the review to the shortest of all movements (two chords) in the Third Concerto, but he wrapped it up by writing, "But the Sixth, for low strings; the Fourth, with its bright recorder lines; and the Fifth, in which Mr. Egarr brought a dramatic flair to the harpsichord solo, were all as shapely and energizing as you’ll hear them."

The AAM and Egarr have recorded the Brandenburgs, and these are zesty performances. I confess to a preference for the even-number concertos, partially because I was a recorder player and loved playing bits of the Second and the Fourth (the opening themes of the Second have been buzzing my head for days now), and also because, as a teenager at music camp in The Hague, campers and faculty performed the Sixth, and I was enhralled by the sonorities of the strings, especially in the first movement; I hadn't heard such impressive string playing up close before.

The Brandenburgs also played a role in my formative experiences as a collector of recordings. Growing up in the northern Italian city of Monza, outside of Milano, I would spend time in a good record store (more about that later in another blog post), but also a discount department store that still operates 40 years later (I visited it again last September): UPIM. At the time, UPIM sold inexpensive LPs with performances by lesser-known European ensembles, featuring mostly Baroque and Classical works, with a strong representation of Italian composers (a bonanza of Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Albinoni, etc. -- UPIM knew its market).

One of my very first recording purchases were two LPs of complete Brandenburg Concertos at UPIM, for about $6 -- such a bargain! I listened to them over and over again. Like so much of sturdy, well-conceived Baroque music, even if the performances aren't (ahem) superlative, the essential spirit of the music can still come through. I played those LPs so much, the grooves pretty much disappeared, but I had them for years.

So I'm excited about getting a first-rate period-instrument ensemble to make its Spivey Hall debut with this great music. To celebrate the opening of the Bach Festival our bonanza of Brandenburgs, we're taking a slightly longer intermission to enjoy a mini-reception with free food and beverages following Concertos 1, 6, and 2, which will give us energy to savor Concertos 5, 3, and 4 in the second half.

Because the AAM is a period-instrument band, the sound will be unlike that of a modern symphony orchestra. The textures of strings, winds, and brass, with harpsichord, theorbo and guitar among the continuo instruments, reveal this music in a different light. So, even if you're familiar with these magnificent works, here's an oportunity to rediscover them. The AAM's recording of the Brandenburgs has certainly opened my ears and (especially with some choices of tempos) made me reconsider my understanding of them. Such is the glory of great music -- there's always more to appreciate, especially when performed by outstanding artists.

We also have a special pre-concert talk speaker: Predrag Gosta, who's music director of Atlanta's New Trinity Baroque and a harpischordist and organist himself, intimately familiar with the Brandenburgs and period-instrument practice. His talk is at 2 PM, and the concert starts this Sunday, March 29, 2009, at 3 PM. A few dozen tickets are (at time of writing) still available.


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