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Dance Fever

November 6, 2007

Watching Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra working with a guest director is always fascinating, but there's something special about the band's relationship with its own director, Nicholas McGegan, that makes his every appearance something to anticipate. Friday's concert at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre, the first of the 2007-2008 season's third set, held another attraction in the form of a healthy portion of McGegan's beloved Jean-Philippe Rameau. The entire program saw conductor and orchestra repeatedly bringing out each other's best.
The concert was titled "The Royal Dance," a name that might seem to slight the non-Rameau, concertante majority of the program. That would be reckoning without the nature of Philharmonia and its direction, though. Philharmonia has, of course, a distinguished record of collaboration with dancers, and in particular a long association with the Mark Morris Dance Group. But it also has Nic McGegan, and where there's Nic conducting, there's always dancing.

Friday he was, as ever, a joy to watch. He wriggled, swooped, crouched, and leaped. At one point he shook his arms violently in front of him after the manner of a comic witch casting a spell. If any of it had seemed to be contrived for the audience's benefit, it would have been insufferable. In actuality, it was an incredibly detailed, information-rich gestural picture of what he wanted from the orchestra. I know of no other conductor who can convey such gestural complexity with such specificity. Everything you need to know to play what he wants is in there.

Or rather, almost everything — there is the (admittedly partial) exception of when, precisely, you are supposed to play. At times McGegan seems to show you everything about the beat except where exactly it is, an omission that must be partly responsible for Philharmonia's players' being as intently aware of one another as they are. The orchestra's prodigious listening skills make for sharp ensemble even where its director is most extravagant, though on Friday a handful of marginally untidy moments occurred.
Showing Off the Guarneri
Rameau generally brings out the light fantastic McGegan toe, and the concert's generous selection of dance music from Castor et Pollux (1737, revised 1754) was no exception. The little flick of the wrist with which he dispatched percussionist Todd Manley's final note on triangle at the end of the set's concluding gavotte was downright precious.

What miracles of character these dances are, though, and how vividly colored they emerged in Philharmonia's and McGegan's hands. The suite's big chaconne is a honey, but the more modest dances and airs surrounding it are equally fine, sharply drawn, and delightfully orchestrated. Philharmonia lavished its coloristic resources on the slightest of them.

After the orchestral virtuosity of the Rameau, the merely soloistic pyrotechnics of the rest of the program had a hard time competing, varied though the music was. The orchestra followed up its last program, of mostly rare Vivaldi violin concertos (see review), with one more such, the late B-flat-major RV 375. This time the soloist was Philharmonia's own Elizabeth Blumenstock, playing the 1660 Andrea Guarneri violin the orchestra recently purchased through the gift of an anonymous benefactor.

Considered as a vehicle for showing off the capabilities of the Guarneri, RV 375 was not ideal, since the piece has more opportunities for dazzling bowing than for pouring out tone. As a vehicle for Blumenstock, though, it was fabulous — the sort of untidy piece in which her imagination always throws off sparks. Her ordinarily sharp articulation was further spiced up here by dashes of flying staccato, while in the slow movement (a curiously moving one for Vivaldi) she sang with touching simplicity.
Side-by-Side Contrast
The Telemann flute-and-recorder double concerto (TWV 52:e1) was the closest thing to a Baroque Greatest Hit on this program, which isn't saying much. Telemann's concertos in general aren't often played, partly because instrumental virtuosity as such doesn't seem to have interested him nearly as much as, say, instrumental color or melodic quirks. That this one does get performed fairly frequently can be credited to its trading in, well, "instrumental color and melodic quirks."

The subtle-yet-pervasive differences in timbre between the two solo instruments are fascinating. (This is the piece to program when you want to disabuse your audience of the idea that a "recorder" is a "baroque flute" by another name.) And the music is crammed with character, too. If the idyllic third movement with its pizzicato backdrop doesn't get you, the foot-stomping finale with its blisteringly fast fingerwork and its splendidly raw eruptions of Polish folk music will.

Frequent Philharmonia guest Marion Verbruggen and Philharmonia flutist Stephen Schultz were nimble and witty in the solo parts. Generally they were well in tune, too, which is no small accomplishment, given both instruments' intonational vagaries. In the third movement my ear caught some persistent pitch disagreement but couldn't quite track it to its source. Elsewhere, though, the two solo lines were in happy harmony with each other, all the better for us to savor the ways in which they were unlike.

Ever since it became generally accepted as fact that Bach produced all or most of his keyboard concertos by raiding the stock of concertos he'd already written for various melodic instruments, the melodic-instrument players have been busy raiding them back, "reconstructing" the putative originals. Sometimes there's general agreement about how the "original" must have been scored. (BWV 1060, for example, which survives as a two-keyboard concerto in C minor, is almost certainly from a violin-and-oboe double concerto, given the different characters of the two solo lines. The various "reconstructions" disagree only about whether to leave it in C minor or bump it up a whole step to D minor.)

The E-Major Keyboard Concerto BWV 1053, on the other hand, has had a crowd of claimants. It's been heard as an F-major oboe concerto for a long time, and more recently violists have taken it up, in D-major and E-flat-major versions. And then there's recorder player Frans Brüggen's version for his own instrument, in D major, which is what Verbruggen presented with Philharmonia. Like the other back-transcriptions, it draws not only on BWV 1053 but also on the two cantatas (BWV 169 and 49) where Bach reused the concerto's music.

The piece works well in this new guise, played with Verbruggen's customary brio. Recorder might have sounded overfrivolous in the slow movement, a harmonically troubled siciliano back-transcribed largely from an alto aria in BWV 169. But between Verbruggen's plangent tone and McGegan's emphasis on the inner workings of the string texture, the movement had both depth and weight. And the finale, brisk and joyous in the sweep of its opening phrase, rounded off this wide-ranging program nicely.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.