Mark Gresham | 24 MAR 2023
Imagine, if you will, a concert where the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and two of his contemporaries, George Frideric Handel and Antonio Vivaldi, fills the air in a nearly-relentless stream without intermission. A world where the sounds of a modern orchestra carry you away on a journey through time and space to an evening of aggregated music limited only to the late Baroque era.
Welcome to Thursday night’s performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Nathalie Stutzmann, a potpourri of pieces primarily comprised of excerpts from works by those three Baroque masters, with only a few complete multi-movement compositions in the mix.
As such, the concert’s structure was hardly that of your typical ASO subscription concert. Not in the least. What it most closely resembled structurally is the annual Christmas with the ASO holiday concerts, although presented in three sections instead of four and not at all holiday-themed, unless you deem Bach’s birthday (March 21) a special holiday — which many do.
A big difference is that Christmas with the ASO has an underlying narrative for its four acts. Bach & Friends did not, though it had a clear theme, relying instead on formal structure for its cohesiveness: essentially a ternary ABA’ form for its entire intermissionless span of 80 minutes of music: Bach, Handel/Vivaldi, and Bach—kind of like a sandwich made of two slices of Bauernbrot with Asiago cheese and fish fingers in between.
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his four orchestral suites (BWV 1066–1069) between 1724 and 1731. Rather than playing a complete Suite from that group Stutzmann and the ASO opened Part I of the concert with the two lively Gavottes from Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068. These were followed immediately by a pair of Sinfonias, the opening orchestral movements from Cantata 42 (“Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats,” BWV 42) and Cantata 12 (“Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen,” BWV 12). This first part of the program closed with the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, featuring concertmaster David Coucheron and associate concertmaster Justin Bruns as soloists.
The programming tactic, used throughout the concert, was to string together several excerpts plus one complete work without the interruption of applause and before any break. That first break allowed a little reset for Part II, which alternated music by Handel and Vivaldi.
The Sinfonia that opens Act Three of Handel’s oratorio Solomon (HWV 67), a lively work for two oboes and strings known as “the Entrance of the Queen of Sheba,” launched Part II of the concert, followed by the complete Concerto for Strings in G Minor, RV 156, of Antonio Vivaldi.
Then came a mashup of five excerpts by Handel, first the “Adagio” section from his Sinfonia in B-flat Major, HWV 339, followed by movements from three of his concerti grossi: the “Allegro, ma non troppo” and “Allegro” from the Concerto grosso in D Minor, Op. 3, No. 5; the “Largo” from Concerto grosso in B-Flat Major, Op. 3, No. 2; and the “Allegro” from Concerto grosso in G Minor, Op. 6, No. 6.
Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins in B Minor, RV 580, in its entirety, ended Part II, featuring Coucheron and Bruns again, plus violinists Jun-Ching Lin and Anastasia Agapova.
The program’s final part returned to the music of Bach with another Sinfonia, this time from Cantata 174 (“Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte,” BWV 174), which will sound familiar to many of the composer’s fans. Bach used the first movement of his own Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in D major, adding five wind parts (double reeds and horns) to the string-only scoring, for this Sinfonia, making it the longest sinfonia for any of his cantatas.
Two movements from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067, featured principal flute Christina Smith, the “Polonaise” and “Badinerie,” with the latter at too much a breakneck tempo, but Ms. Smith brilliantly kept with it. She stood toward the back of the strings to play, but it would have been far preferable for her to have been allowed to come to the front of the orchestra to play, where various violinists had stood for their solo stints.
The final pieces in Part II were the “Bouree” and “Gigue” from the Orchestral Suite No. 3, from which the two Gavottes were drawn to begin the program. Unsurprisingly, there was an encore from the same suite, the famous “Air.”
One colleague suggested that this performance was the “most Baroque” the ASO has sounded in years—a credible observation. It certainly was not the romanticized kind of approach still heard on occasion; likewise, not the opposite tack of original instruments and historically informed performance practice that changes every 15 years. No, this is an orchestra playing modern instruments, but that doesn’t prevent adopting conceptualization that tries to envision how to realize a composer’s musical intent.
But I was not truly convinced by the program’s format or some of the approaches to performance.
Throughout much of the concert, Stutzmann depended upon the flurry and fluster of pushing the music to the front edge of viable tempo to energize the music. And yet, despite the well-known skills of the musicians, I felt a certain rawness in the overall approach to elements of style. In some pieces, the primary “A” sections seemed more confident than their secondary “B” sections, where phrases would run out of breath and become vague near their end, then suddenly land hard on the final chord of the cadence.
Looking back at the programming, carefully selecting complete works would have been better than a collage of disparate movements strung together. Both Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins and Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins worked nicely, as did “Entrance of the Queen of Sheba,” which often gets played as a standalone piece outside of Handel’s oratorio.
But I would much rather have heard Bach’s entire Orchestral Suite No. 2 with Ms. Smith soloing front and center and the complete Orchestral Suite No. 3 in order rather than fragments serving as putative bookends for the concert plus an encore, and also have one of Handel’s concertos in full on the docket instead of a patchwork quilt pieced together from several different concerti.
Alas, even the program booklet assisted little in threading the works aside from the list, being absent notes about the music, only about the composers. Those of a cynical mind might wonder whether this particular concert was a “test” regarding audience acceptance of its structure as a model for future programming decisions.
Next week, however, Stutzmann and the ASO will present us with a concert that is definitely not a patchwork: Bach’s monumental Matthäus-Passion, BWV 244 (the St. Matthew Passion). Having experienced this week’s Bach & Friends mélange, the St Matthew Passion will offer an intriguing contrast with its overarching dramatic and architectural profundity. One way or another, we will be there. ■
The ASO performs its Bach & Friends program again on Saturday evening, March 25, at Symphony Hall.