BSO's gift to Bach lovers

Musicians shine in the Brandenburgs

June 07, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun music critic

In the annals of ungratefulness, the Margrave of Brandenburg retains a place of distinction. Upon receipt of six painstakingly hand-written music scores sent to him in 1721, accompanied by a gift tag bursting with obsequious prose, this brother of the Prussian king put them in a drawer and ignored them. Didn't even send a simple "Thank You, Peasant" note.

At least the margrave didn't go in for re-gifting. Otherwise, the world might never have discovered the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach.

As it tuned out, those concertos - three of them are being given a lively workout by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this week - languished safely in the Margrave's library until he died, 13 years after receiving them. To add insult to injury, the scores were valued by the nobleman's estate at a couple bucks. (In fairness, although it's much more fun to vilify, I should point out that the margrave's court didn't contain the number or caliber of musicians to do the concertos justice, so that may account for their neglect.)

Eventually, of course, the Brandenburg Concertos made their way into the mainstream to become some of the most familiar and popular items in all of classical music. No wonder. Despite Bach's reference to "the little talents that Heaven has given me for Music" in his groveling letter to the margrave (he begged the guy "most humbly not to judge their imperfection"), the composer was at his most brilliant and inviting in these pieces.

The complex rules of counterpoint are applied here as vigorously as in everything else Bach wrote, but there isn't the slightest touch of the academic in this wonderfully entertaining music. That engaging quality poured out Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore in a program that also had room for the divine Concerto for Two Violins in D minor. (The concert repeats tonight at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where, this morning, BSO musicians will perform another baroque program, devoted to Vivaldi, Handel and Heinrich Biber.)

Concertmaster Jonathan Carney functioned as violin/viola soloist and conductor, working smoothly with a small contingent of his colleagues.

As usual, his playing was characterized by sweetness of tone and refined technique, and he encouraged an attentiveness to subtleties of phrasing from everyone else.

In the Brandenburgs, tempos were fleet, without reaching the Mach-speed levels favored by period instrument ensembles. Here and there, I wouldn't have minded a little more push or dynamic definition in the playing, but these admirable performances caught the fundamentally outgoing, uplifting spirit of the scores.

No. 3, with its richness of string textures, got a buoyant reading. Carney provided a nicely elongated cadenza to fill out the simple cadence that Bach provided between the two fast movements, in lieu of a fleshed-out Adagio. No. 4 showcased the refined, well-blended articulation of flutists Emily Skala and Marcia K?mper, balanced with Carney's elegant violin work.

The intimate No. 6 found violist Karin Brown and Carney, now on viola, passing melodies back and forth seamlessly, while cellists Ilya Finkelshteyn, Dariusz Skoraszewski and Seth Low, bassist Robert Barney and harpsichordist Eric Conway provided supple support.

In the Concerto for Two Violins, Carney shared the spotlight with assistant concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich. Both fiddlers maintained a beautifully rounded sound as they negotiated the tightly interwoven lines of the piece, and they achieved considerable elegance in the exquisite Largo. The BSO contingent backed the soloists in cohesive, animated fashion.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

The BSO performs at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. today at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $15 to $78. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.

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