Orchestra handles Bach deftly

On April 20, 2013 |
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By David Patrick Stearns, Inquirer Music Critic

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s J.S. Bach immersion continues at Verizon Hall as earnestly as in the recent St. Matthew Passion, and with greater density and outward playfulness.

Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 plus Orchestral Suite No. 3 are works in which Bach brought the concerto-for-orchestra form to an apex that nobody else caught up with for centuries. And those pieces kept the orchestra busier than Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 on Thursday, with numerous key players facing strenuous solo turns. Performances were excellent: Even when the players played Bach like a second language, they spoke it well.

Though constantly heard on recordings, the Brandenburgs are mostly played in concentrated form by the likes of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, not larger groups best known for Tchaikovsky. Bach specialist Nicholas McGegan was a necessary presence for guiding the generalist Philadelphia Orchestra through these chamber concertos, in which players numbered between 30 and 40, a large ensemble by historically informed performance standards but needed in a venue as large as Verizon.

Though Bach wrote key passages for baroque recorder, McGegan had no flutist of Jeffrey Khaner’s caliber to switch to something smaller. The orchestra was urged to be the best version of itself.

Still, the music insists on a manner not easily absorbed in limited rehearsal. Speedy tempos rightly favored by McGegan wrested the players from the usual pinpointing of individual notes, forcing them to reveal larger ideas at hand by skating over long runs while also giving details their due.

Much burden fell on concertmaster David Kim, who carried a number of movements with style and buoyancy. Has he ever played better? Ditto for oboist Richard Woodhams; Bach is his first language.

Less in the foreground, Davyd Booth migrated from the violin section to harpsichord (uncredited in the program), improvising an elegant countermelody to the “Air on the G String” in Orchestral Suite No. 3 and creating a movement out of thin air in Concerto No. 3. Following the first movement, Bach left only a single bar marked “adagio” with only two concluding chords. Instead of playing the usual brief cadenza, Booth played a five-minute fantasy reportedly based on a harmonic skeleton but mostly improvised, and sounding so Bach-like it could’ve come from the composer’s English Suites.

McGegan was full of smart touches, encouraging breaths in unexpected places and molding phrases in ways that put an entirely new meaning on music I’ve heard for ages. His programs are so good for orchestra hygiene, he should be here often.

Postscript: Though trumpeter David Bilger handled virtuoso passages in Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 well, he did so with an injured lip. Concerto for Two Violins replaces the piece.