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Philharmonia Baroque, In the Thick of Friendship and Fighting

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

Oct. 9, 10, 11, 16, and 17

Amid the glamour and glitz of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s’s 2009-2010 season, the ensemble’s October concert set “The Concerto: An Adversarial Friendship” may draw more headlines for its guest leader (the dynamic violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch) than its repertory, comprising mostly less-familiar German figures (Muffat, Biber, Schmelzer). But dig deeper into the program, performed Oct. 9-17 in various Bay Area locales, and you’ll find some flashy selections and intriguing backstories to this highly engaging repertory.

Georg Muffat’s Florilegium secundum, a set of ensemble suites published in 1698, helped cement that composer’s reputation as a “cosmopolitan” figure — that is, one well-versed in the varying national styles of France, Germany, and Italy. But being cosmopolitan had its risks: The Florilegium was composed during a war between France and much of the rest of Europe, sparking criticism of the composer for his alleged cultural sympathies with the enemy. His pithy response suggests a pacifist streak: “As I mix the French style with the German and Italian, I do not begin a war, but perhaps a prelude to the unity, the dear peace, desired by all the peoples.” Of the two selections on PBO’s program, Fasciculus I, nobilis juventus (Noble youth) in D major is an international potpourri, each movement redolent of a specific national style, while Fasciculus VIII, indissolubilis amicitia (Inseparable friendship) in E major is lithe and graceful, in the French style. Two selections by Heinrich Biber showcase his flamboyant streak.

The Serenade in C Major, “Der Nachtwächter” (Nightwatchman’s call) features a repeating ground pattern (or “ciacona”) in the middle movement, drawn from ’s famous madrigal Zefiro torna. Biber provides some colorful instructions for the performers: “In the Ciacona the Nightwatchman comes, calling out the hour as they do these days. And the other instruments are all to be played without the bow, like lutes (in the Gavotte as well), with the violins held under the arm; this looks great.”

Biber’s Battalia, meanwhile, assembles a panoply of militaristic effects, from rat-a-tat rhythms to meandering melodies jumbled together in a dissonant depiction of drunken soldiers. Here the composer’s performance instructions include some smirk-inducing directives: “Where the strokes are written, one must knock on the violin with the bow. You have to try this.” Another battle piece, Die Fechtschule (Fencing school), by Johann Schmelzer, depicts a fencing lesson, running from student warm-ups to the main event, complete with foot-stomping, gnashing of blades, and thumping march rhythms.

More-subtle twists underlie two works by the ever-prolific Georg Philipp Telemann. In the Concerto for Two Violins and Bassoon in D Major, Telemann upends traditional differentiations between soloist and ensemble. The solo trio conglomerates into a sort of independent trio sonata, set against the accompanying string ensemble; interchanging musical material among all instruments blurs the dividing lines. In the Sonata in C Major for Four Violins Without Bass, Telemann abandons the traditional “continuo” (bass) instrument, and each of the four violinists takes turns covering the bass part.

After all this razzle-dazzle, the inclusion of J.S. Bach’s more-stolid Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major might seem jarring. Bach displays a distinctly traditionalist bent in this piece, drawing on his predecessor Antonio Vivaldi in several aspects of formal structure and musical motives. Yet in its classic elegance and impeccable elaboration of themes, this outstanding concerto remains a masterwork not to be missed.

Joseph Sargent holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford University and teaches at the University of San Francisco.