Moving Toward Bach

Jonathan Rhodes Lee on July 22, 2008
The Music at Menlo Chamber Music Festival launched its sixth season Saturday with a reprise of its first year's programming concept: "The Unfolding of Music." Although the title may be a bit opaque (how, exactly, does one "fold" music?), the idea is an ambitious one. Imagine an undergraduate music history survey, without the bored freshmen, but with the lectures, the textual glosses by musicologists, and even some student performers to test the historical concepts bandied about in the classroom. And, of course, the music — but instead of the stacks of CDs that are de rigueur for the history teacher, Music at Menlo has substituted stacks of musicians from around the world; 41 of them, to be precise. And that number, staggering as it may be, is not quite the whole story. There are also 11 members of the International Program of young musicians studying under the guidance of the festival artists, two visiting composers, and lecturers, all parties leading not only concerts but also master classes, meals, and poetry readings, spanning three packed weeks and requiring a 64-page booklet to guide the 6,000-member audience through it all. It's an impressive — and somewhat overwhelming — mélange. Every history survey must have a starting point, and this festival launches from the 17th and early 18th centuries with its first program, titled "Towards Bach." For each of the selections, a different set of performers took the stage, in a dizzying array of ensembles. These were all modern instrumentalists, which made the programming, including works by the likes of Salamone Rossi, Giovanni Legrenzi, and Henry Purcell, particularly adventurous. Such music is usually left to the devices of period instrument specialists, but the popularity of early music has led to a marked increase of modern-instrument renditions on the radio and the concert stage. In terms of sonic results, Saturday's concert was a mixed bag, featuring everything from playing that was most sensitive to stylistic and structural concerns to performances that strove to transform Rossi into Rachmaninov and Legrenzi into Lalo.

Passed-over Moments of Color

On the least-sensitive end of the scale was the Escher String Quartet's performance of Purcell's Fantasia Upon One Note. In this famous work, the tenor line holds a single tone in the midst of a kaleidoscopic progression of contrapuntal interplay. The Quartet's rendering, however, transformed contrapuntal density into mushy padding, over which the first violinist soared with lines of endless melody. The point of the exercise seemed hopelessly lost on the players. What that held tone in the middle part means is that Purcell can craft a steadily building array of dissonances and resolutions, culminating in a long passage of cross-relations, each relating to that pedal tone in a different way.
Escher String Quartet

Photo by Tristan Cook

In Saturday's performance, these moments of harmonic color were passed over. The performance was safe for consumption by minors, virtually all its enharmonic spice having been muted and ignored — resulting in a thoroughly disappointing experience. Closely following the Purcell for the dubious title of "Evening's Most Bland Performance" was the rendering of Legrenzi's Sonata "La Foscari," while the Rossi that evening can only generously be described as "stodgy."
Erin Keefe
Halfway up our little aesthetic scale were the evening's performances of music by J.S. Bach. We heard two Brandenburg concerti performed with verve and excitement. Violinist Erin Keefe wowed us with her fancy fingerwork, throaty tone, and double-stops attacked with such precision and enthusiasm that even Ysaÿe would have blushed. Her quick bow strokes and tasteful use of vibrato also led me to believe that she's held a Baroque violin in the past, which doubtless contributed to some of the interpretive and stylistic choices that pleased me so much. This concert also marked the premiere of a "new" work by Bach. New York–based harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper led his arrangement of Bach's Concerto in D Major, BWV 972, itself an arrangement of a violin concerto by Vivaldi. While working in Weimar, Bach first came into contact with Vivaldi's music and arranged several concertos for solo keyboard. Most musicologists believe these keyboard arrangements to be Bach's "workshop," where he experimented with translating Vivaldi's violin writing into an idiomatic keyboard style, a process that found fruition in Bach's later Leipzig concertos for harpsichords with orchestra.
Kenneth Cooper
Cooper believes otherwise, holding that Bach must have performed these arrangements as harpsichord concertos, with Vivaldi's original string parts forming the orchestral backing. While I found it difficult to agree with his musicological reasoning, the results on Saturday were quite successful. The second movement was particularly beautiful, with sensitive and supple playing by Cooper, who obviously relished those moments where the orchestra stopped, when he was able to indulge in a bit of improvisatory embellishment. Both the players and the audience ate up this "new Bach," and it is certainly an experiment worthy of repetition with some of the other arrangements from that same collection.

Going Bonkers Over a Program Change

Yet, as appreciative as the audience was for this previously unheard work, they went absolutely bonkers for a piece that they'd heard a million times: a concerto grosso by Corelli (Op. 6, no. 4, in D major). Their excitement was well-founded. Through one of those funny twists of fate (in this case, a cancellation by the evening's singer and a concomitant hole in the program), members of the International Program of young musicians found themselves unexpectedly onstage with their senior colleagues. Their performance was, far and away, the most successful installment of the evening. The concerto was filled with enthusiasm, life, and, most important, air. Their playing was so different from that of the turgid Purcell we'd just heard! These performers knew how to clear the way for important contrapuntal interplay, how to relish deceptive cadences and Italianate dissonances, how to linger and swell "blue" notes. The International Program players provided the best exemplar of what can be done, interpretively and sonically, with early music on modern instruments. As far as early music is concerned, these guys don't have too much to learn from their elder colleagues — quite to the contrary. The marked qualitative difference between groups on stage brought up an important consideration. If the organizers of Music at Menlo repeat this concept of taking a tour through music history, I would encourage them to consider hiring period-instrument specialists for their Baroque program. I haven't heard their program of new music, which will close the festival, but something tells me that aficionados of contemporary music would have a similar reaction. With room for 43 musicians on the roster, surely this impressive, ambitious series could create an exciting blend of specialist and mainstream performers that would continue to attract, entertain, and edify its throngs of appreciative subscribers.