The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Madison Bach Musicians sparkled in Bach’s “Brandenburg” concertos. They made you look as well as listen. Take a peek.

April 29, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

I think it was the composer Igor Stravinsky who advised people to look while listening.

Making music, after all, is one of the supreme acts of hand-eye coordination.

It’s impressive a skill that is great fun to watch. That’s why everyone wants to sit on the left side of the house when a pianist performs – so you watch the fingers wiggle.

Well, a great example of that happened last Saturday night when the Madison Bach Musicians performed the second installment of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg concertos – Nos. 4, 5 and 6, along with a Telemann unaccompanied sonata for two recorders.

The performances were crisp and well thought through. In a few places there were minor pitch problems – but then it was dark and stormy night, after all, the kind that drives period instruments crazy when it comes to holding their tune.

This secular music was joyously written and joyously performed, full of spiky dance rhythms and sharp attach as well as virtuoso displays that demonstrated that Bach was not always the modest church musicians afraid of showing off.

And these performances proved a wonderful occasion to become reacquainted with these works that many of us heard early on and then often found too popular and too easy to revisit. But revisit them we should. They are great masterpieces and gladden one’s heart.

The leader, Edgewood music professor Trevor Stephenson (below), was his witty and urbane but illuminating self when he gave about a 40-minute talk about Bach and his music. He explained major issues in early music – lower pitch, gut versus metal strings, how a harpsichord works, the tonal color of different keys.

But the real show came with the players, who left no doubt that the Madison Bach Musicians are the premiere period music group in town and maybe even the state. They do the most — in quantity and variety — and they do it the best.

But I’ll save some of my verbiage and word praise, and trade it in for pictures I took to show you how exciting it was to witness a Baroque “band” – some 15 players usually in groups of 10 or fewer (below top) – as they performed to the sold-out event at the Unitarian Society’s new Atrium Auditorium. (below bottom).

It is one thing to say, “Well, Bach is unusual when he pits two violists against three viola da gambists and cellists in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6.” It is quite another thing, and an impressive thing, to see it play out in front of your ears – and your eyes.

So I start with Concerto No. 6 – first the ensemble (on top), then the two groups of soloists: (from left) cellist Anton TenWolde and gambists Steuart Pincombe and Eric Miller in the middle; and violists Marika Hoyt (left) and Christie Liu, on the bottom.

In No. 5, the harpsichord steals the stage, even as it plays against two recorders. Unfortunately, Stephenson was surrounded by instruments during his explosive cadenza, so you could see him play. But I did get to see the replica of Bach’s own two-manual, dark-key harpsichord (below) that he and Norman Sheppard had built. And boy, does it work. Stephenson’s playing sizzled.

In No. 4, it was amazing to watch violinist Kangwon Kim (below top right,  with Edith Hines on the left and Eleanor Bartsch in the middle ) perform a tremolo to the harpsichord so fast you could hardly see her articulate the bowing. She parried with recordists Patrick O’Malley (below bottom left) and Lisette Kielson, who also performed the Telemann sonata.

Why do we like watching musicians at work?

Or am I the only one who is so fascinated with music’s visuals?

If you like the photo-essay format, let me know and I will do more of them.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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