Bach, Bach’s Cousin and Telemann Mourn

12/10/2015

 Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Christoph Bach, Georg P. Telemann: New York Baroque Incorporated, Monica Huggett (violin, viola), Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 9.9.2015 (SSM)

J. S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, BWV 1051
Telemann: Trauer Kantate, “Du aber, Daniel, gehe hin,” TWV4:17
Johann Christoph Bach: “Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte”
J. S. Bach: “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (“Actus Tragicus”), BWV 106

There was a time when a common complaint among New York music-goers was the absence here of a permanent Baroque orchestra. Boston has the Boston Baroque and the Baroque Early Music Festival. There’s the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco, Music of the Baroque in Chicago, and Cleveland’s Apollo’s Fire. Europe had Baroque orchestras as early as the 1970s, if not before. By the year 2000, there were, and still are, one or more groups in most major European cities.

New York has had a number of groups that came and went. The groundbreaking New York Pro Musica was started in the 1950s and specialized in pre-Baroque music; it continued until the director’s death in 1966. Even with Andrew Parrott as director, the New York Collegium Musicum couldn’t make a go of it and shut down in 2010.

It has taken some time, but we are now seeing a number of groups of various sizes committed to playing Baroque music on Baroque instruments. Not surprisingly, the source of many of these groups in New York and elsewhere has been Juilliard’s Historical Performance department. Now in its seventh year, the program has gained a reputation that has spread around the world, with invitations to the student orchestra to perform in local and foreign venues.

This concert by the young players of New York Baroque Incorporated with guest director Monica Huggett (currently artistic advisor to Juilliard) shows these musicians are both technically proficient and as serious and professional as any early music group. The program was untitled, but the main theme was mourning and death. This was a brave choice since the common perception of Baroque music, if there is one, is that it is for light listening: music such as Vivaldi’s ”Four Seasons” or Albinoni’s “Adagio” (actually not by Albinoni, but by a spurious mid-20th-century composer). But death was at the core of Bach’s and much of Telemann’s music. Bach wrote at the end of most of his completed scores the words “Soli deo gloria” (“Only for the Glory of God”). In a recent article in The New Yorker, Alex Ross opens with these words: “Johann Sebastian Bach lost both of his parents when he was nine and watched ten of his children die young. He was, in other words, well acquainted with death, and may have been uncommonly sensitive to the emotional chaos that it engenders.”

The selection of the sixth Brandenberg was also a wise choice. Although this concerto (as well as the others) is in a major key, the choice of only dark- hued instruments gives the work a minor-key feel. The effect of this work is the same regardless of whether the viola da gambas are replaced by celli, or whether the violas are some variant of the da gamba family, not the modern violas of the string section. These dark colors were heightened by the contrapuntal complexities of the work.

Playing this concerto with one voice per part allows every line to be heard: OVPP relies on just one person to carry the musical moment. Monica Huggett and the others offered fine playing, but Kyle Miller as the second violist, although technically capable of playing his part, failed to articulate clearly and loudly enough to be an equal to Ms. Huggett.

The recorder players, Priscilla Herreid and Luke Conklin, were sensitive to the rocking lyricism of the opening sinfonia of Bach’s 106th Cantata. As good as all the instrumentalists were, the vocalists also impressed with their technical skills and their presentation. Soprano Sara MacKimmie has the pure sound that is a requisite for the vocal music of the Baroque. The highpoint was the disconsolate Lamento by J. S. Bach’s older cousin Johann Christoph Bach, “Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte,” sung to perfection by alto Sara Coudin.

Stan Metzger

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