Mark Gresham | 14 NOV 2020
The concert opened with nine excerpts from Suites Nos. 1 & 2 of Handel’s Water Music. Spano and the orchestra approached the music with a modern perspective that presented the composer’s musical intent without having to rely on strict historical performance practice or instruments, allowing it to be communicative without being academically overbearing or stuffy. That doesn’t mean that the musicians disregard elements of musical style at all, but present them in the context of the our times. (After all, as one wag put it: Historical performance practices tend to change every 15 years or so.)
The Water Music suites are familiar fare for most 21st century classical audiences, and the joy of hearing the mostly familiar tunes (such as the all Hornpipe of Suite No. 2) tends to outweigh examination through a microscope; the details, such as agreement on executing ornamentation, is a matter for the orchestra and conductor as long as they are all on the same page in concept and performance.
The unfamiliar work on the program (and its composer) was Hertel’s Bassoon Concerto in A minor, with ASO principal bassoon Andrew Brady making his subscription series solo debut. The piece from what is now a fairly ignored stylistic transitional period between the concluding peak of the Baroque of J.S. Bach, Handel and Rameau, and the classical era peak of the music of Haydn and Mozart. As such, it retains elements of the older era while looking forward a little, including some interesting, lightly piquant harmonies here and there for the era. Handel and Bach both died in 1750, Hertel lived from 1727–1789. Mozart died only 2 years after Hertel, so its clear Hertel did live into the full flowering of the Classical style, but his music sounds a little older, more Early Classical in the manner of Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, the second surviving son of Johann Sebastian.
This performance by Brady and the ASO feels less aggressive and more lyrical than that by bassoonist Sergio Azzolini with the Capriccio Barock Orchester (conducted by Dominik Kiefer), which definitely has a spark of articulatory energy, but that may be in large part due very close mic placement — so close you can hear the sound of Azzolini’s bassoon clearly moving back and forth between left and right channels, especially if you’re wearing headphone. The ASO’s audio is more realistically distanced but without losing clarity and definition in either the solo part or the orchestra. It is no so much in your face. Brady’s sound is mellow and lyrical and not quite as reedy in the ASO video. But a suggestion to the reader: Listen to Brady talk about “The Art of Reed Making” in a YouTube video and you’ll get a better insight into his sound.
The concert concluded with another Baroque favorite that pegs the popularity meter as much as Handel’s Water Music: Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3, in particular the “Air” that is the second movement has existed well within American popular culture consciousness, even if the average person on the street, especially the young, may no longer be able to name it or its source, though older folk might know it better in the arrangement by violinist August Wilhelmj, “Air on the G String” which was a “popular classic” through the mid-20th century, and which differs from the original in that the first violin part is played by a single violin, and is transposed down so that it can be played entirely on the instrument’s lowest (G) string.
That aside, the entire Suite from its vivacious “French Overture” to its happy concluding “Gigue” was a great way to close this “mostly Baroque” evening by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. We’re let with a feeling that we should hear more Baroque music from a subset of the ASO that we have over the last couple of decades, and perhaps that will happen — at least while the limitations on size and spacing are necessary while the pandemic is still in play. Hopefully we will hear more after the pandemic is over as well. ■