Philharmonia Baroque discloses the ‘essence’ of classical style

On February 16, 2013 |
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The title of last night’s concert in Herbst Theatre by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Nicholas McGegan, was Essence of Classical Style. The program lived up to its title in a variety of interesting ways. For one thing the four works on the program all fit very compactly into the five-year period between 1770 and 1774, almost as if the full scope of classical style had been distilled into the musical practices of this one half-decade. Nevertheless, the time span is a significant one, since 1774 was the year in which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his K. 201 symphony in A major, a composition that many take to be his first significant symphony achievement and the work McGegan selected to conclude his program.

Equally interesting was the central role played by Johann Christian Bach. I use that adjective literally, since the “London” Bach (known as “John Bach” in that city) was represented by the second and third works on the program, one on either side of the intermission. The first of these was a sinfonia concertante in F major for oboe and bassoon; and, while that genre is most frequently associated with Mozart’s K. 364 in E-flat major, Bach was probably the earliest major promoter of the genre, which grew out of the concerto grosso of his predecessors.

Bach was also a major influence on Mozart. His biographer Heinz Gärtner referred to him in the subtitle of his book as “Mozart’s Friend and Mentor” (at least in Reinhard Pauly’s English translation). Mozart’s earliest keyboard concertos were transcriptions of Bach sonatas; and last night’s (For the record, the source for Mozart’s transcriptions was Bach’s Opus 5 collection of sonatas.)

One final interesting observation is that all four of these compositions required the same resources. The string ensemble was augmented by two oboes (Marc Schachman and Michael DuPree), bassoon (Danny Bond), and two horns (R. J. Kelley and Paul Avril). Schachman and Bond were the soloists for the Bach sinfonia concertante; but they performed from within the ensemble, since their “concerto” solos interleaved with their “symphonic” material. McGegan also decided to divide his two double basses (Kristin Zoernig and Michelle Burr) with one at the rear of either side of the stage.

The result was a program that really did distill that “essence” of the classical style so familiar to pretty much everyone in the audience. Each composition had its own particular stamp of uniqueness. For Bach this involved the “double duty” assigned to Schachman and Bond and the witty rhetoric of his symphony, particularly with its abruptly quiet (and somewhat unexpected) conclusion. For Haydn we had his experimenting with unconventional minor-key sonorities, one of the key features of his approach to the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) literary movement. (For those who follow historically-informed concerts in San Francisco, the Hoboken III/29 string quartet performed by the New Esterházy Quartet, all members of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, this past November was composed in 1771, the same year as the Hoboken I/44 symphony.) Finally, we had Mozart coming into his own as a mature symphonist, even if he was only eighteen years old at the time.

However, while each of these composers had his own individual approach to what Charles Rosen called the “dialect” of the classical style, there was at least one practice that emerged in the work of all three of the composers. This was the recognition of the rhetorical impact of full-stop silence. As one listened to the four works on this program, one began to realize that all three of the composers paid as much attention to their rests as they did to their notes. Haydn probably saw those rests as devices for suspense suitable to his Sturm und Drang mood, while Mozart tended to use them for witty banter in K. 201. Nevertheless, one recognized that the half-decade of the four compositions on the program was a time when the rest established its own significance, a significance that would be exploited to even greater extent by Haydn’s pupil, Ludwig van Beethoven (as early as his first three piano sonatas, which he dedicated to Haydn).

If McGegan succeeded in conceiving a program that would capture that “essence” of classical style, then his execution was just as successful in realizing that program. As usual, he was sensitive to both the flow of the overall structure and the nuanced level of all the details. He was particularly effective in enabling that “double duty” of Schachman and Bond in the Bach sinfonia concertante, always controlling the overall balance to establish when the music was “concerto” and when it was “symphony.” He was as much at home with the wit of Bach’s symphony as he was with Mozart’s outdoing that wit four years later in K. 201. The result was a memorable experience through which most of us on audience side discovered that what we thought was “comfortably familiar” about the classical style was not quite as familiar as we had supposed.