A Gross (Or So) Of Concerti: Bach Sinfonia at Montgomery College Performing Arts Center, October 24, 2009
So many programs juxtapose essentially unrelated works and leave it to the audience to figure out why they’re being played together that the program artistic director Daniel Abraham developed for the Bach Sinfonia’s first concert of the 2009-10 season (not to mention the first concert in the Montgomery College Performing Arts Center in beautiful downtown Silver Spring) qualifies as something of a blockbuster. Titled “The Story of the Baroque Concerto Grosso,” it told just that, with works representative and vivid enough that the listener could easily imagine them in conversation.
Arcangelo Corelli’s Op. 6 No. 7 concerto grosso seemed to be discussing with Georg Muffat’s Concerto IV from Armonico Tributo exactly who stole what ideas about juxtaposing a smaller solo group with the full orchestra. Alessandro Scarlatti took their innovations and complexified them with two fugues in three movements; Pietro Antonio Locatelli brought bustle and virtuoso fireworks and a sunny temperment to the party.
Abraham closed with the two heaviest hitters: Georg Friederic Handel’s sixth concerto from the greatest set of 12 of all, his Op. 6, with a shudderingly lyrical Musette anchoring gracefully complex invention; and Antonio Vivaldi’s third from his Op. 10, L’estro armonico, featuring four solo violins stepping out from the concertino group, set in relief against a larger orchestra.
Unfortunately, Saturday’s edition of the Sinfonia (it’s a pickup group with a number of mainstays) and music director Abraham had uneven success in realizing Abraham’s program. Both violin soloists Annie Loud and Wendy Harton Benner and the orchestra sounded pallid and tenative in the Corelli, with Loud’s violin too quiet to be easily heard over her cohort. (I can’t bring myself to make the joke.)
Near-chaos erupted in the Locatelli as the backing violins couldn’t coordinate their bracing runs with violinists Leslie Nero and Benner and viola soloist Henry Valoris. More generally, the exceptionally humid day seemed to be wreaking havoc on everyone’s tuning, and it showed up most in the violin section, which of course had the most players to coordinate; unison passages occasionally soured throughout the evening.
Yet violinist Marlisa del Cid Woods made poetry in Moffat’s occasionally square concerto, unspooling her melancholic Sarabande and Aria with a degree of rhythmic freedom that made Muffat’s melody pulse and sigh, with Nero an effective contrapuntal foil. Though Loud and Woods didn’t sparkle in the Scarlatti, they and the orchestra clearly presented its two contrasting fugues, lightening up with the Minuet finale. (Abraham referred to this as the “sorbet.”)
Both Handel and Vivaldi received performances that made their voices heard loudest in this compositional conversation. Benner dispatched Handel’s lead role with elegant authority and made his invention soar; the Musette became an emotional core, as Abraham got a plush tone from the strings and a hard push on its rhythms to build and release tension. The Vivaldi gave each of the four violinists time to shine; the diverse approaches of Benner, Loud, Woods, and Nero, which had caused occasional blending problems earlier, here made for a delicious stylistic buffet.
Throughout, Abraham asked for crisp tempos and vigorous rhythms from the orchestra, particularly its lower end. Douglas Poplin, who played ‘cello in all the concertante groups, threw himself into his music with gusto and assurance, most vividly so in the demanding Vivaldi. Harpsichordist Elena Tsai did not attack the beat or conjure inventive voicings in the way to which fans of the Sinfonia’s longtime harpischordist Michelle Roy are accustomed, but William Simms’ did both of those things in spades on the guitar and theoboro.
The Montgomery College Performing Arts Center has a pretty good hall, but it does not have quite the one-two punch of acoustic clarity and warmth of the Sinfonia’s former venue, the Woodside United Methodist Church. In its favor: It’s a nice-looking hall, with a combo of natural wood and cinderblock that’s attractive without being too plush, and it does have seats with padding rather than pews, bathrooms convenient to the actual stage, ample parking, etc. Probably a trade-up for all but the iron-buttocked. And though the concert had some flaws, it also showed the strengths — inventive programming, strong rhythms, and talented soloists — that make the Bach Sinfonia a worthy ornament to the hall, and vice versa.
WHEN YOUR BODY STARTS TO MOVE, IT JUST PUTS US ALL IN THE GROOVE
Marlisa del Cid Woods has a very expressive face, and she had an empathic facial expression during her sad music in the Moffat. Wendy Harton Benner has a less expressive face (at least when she plays), and stands regally erect on stage, with her violin almost perpendicular to her body, and the first word that comes to mind when I think of her playing is “commanding.” I wondered during the concert: Am I using my eyes to hear them play? Probably a little. And yet I can hear in my mind now Woods’ gentle rhythmic pulse imparting a casual grace to her line, and Benner’s crisp yet sensitive phrasing giving Handel a lift. But was my aural memory corrupted by my visual sensation? Ah, who knows.
In appearance-related notes, Elena Tsai’s glasses are extremely fashionable. They almost made me want to have a vision defect so I could correct it with similarly fashionable glasses.
THE BACH SINFONIA IS STALKING ME
Woodside United Methodist Church was about a four-minute walk from my old apartment. Then I moved. Now the Bach Sinfonia has moved into a new venue that is, if anything, even closer to my apartment. I hope they’ll have a chamber concert in my living room sometime! I’ve got…let’s see…12 chairs! C’mon!Concert review
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