Bach Stars: The Bach Project at Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring, January 28, 2012
Flutists Stephen Schultz and Kathie Stewart and cellist David Ellis, performing as The Bach Project, played as a trio for only the opening and closing works on their Saturday night program, presented under the auspices of the Bach Sinfonia at Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring. These two works, however, were two of the four London Trios for this unusual combination of instruments by none other than Franz Joseph Haydn. (No, not a Bach, but too good to leave out, obviously.)
Big Papa Haydn’s keen understanding of the timbres and capabilities of the instruments allowed him to constantly play with the light textures of the combo while still packing the trios full of the kind of witty, elevated invention we have come to call Haydnesque. Schultz, Stewart and Ellis, playing Hadyn-period instruments in the historically informed style (this was a Bach Sinfonia concert, after all), gave a performance where the music sprang to life from the first notes with the kind of carefree joy that comes to audiences only from the previous hard work of performers.
It was all the more surprising, then, that later in the program Stewart announced that Schultz would skip his scheduled performance of a solo flute fantasia by Georg Philip Telemann because he had a bad head cold. I am not a professional flutist, but it seems to me that breathing is an important part of playing the flute; it’s tough to imagine how good he must sound when his various respiration-related passages are not obstructed. Thankfully, he was able to play everything else as scheduled on Saturday, and I hope he recovers soon.
Stewart covered for him by playing the first movement of a flute sonata by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Like a lot of C.P.E.’s music, it can be heard as a young man’s rebellion against his famous papa, with phrases twisting up from their obvious conclusions into harmonically outré questions, moods changing seemingly bar-by-bar, and long pauses to make everyone think hard about the goings-on. Stewart committed fully to the ride, playing up the contrasts and wringing lots of drama out of her fermatas. Hearing the last two movements of the sonata after intermission allowed the first to hang in the air for a while like an unanswered question — an effect not inimical, I would guess, to C.P.E.’s intentions, and certainly a fun effect on Saturday.
Those of you not steeped in 18th-century musical lore may be wondering how the Bach Project could gin up an entire program of music for flutes. If you guessed “Some guy with a lot of money and/or power played the flute,” you are of course right: That person was Frederick the Great, German potentate and skilled amateur tootler. Besides C.P.E.’s opus (his only work for solo flute), F.d.G. likely played two other works on Saturday’s program, duets by C.P.E.’s bro Wilhelm Friedemann and the king of the Baroque flute, Johann Joachim Quantz, who conveniently had the king who played the Baroque flute as his patron.
On Saturday, W.F. Bach’s “Duetto” in E minor mostly sounded dour; Schultz and Stewart made fetching noises, but W.F. did not vary those noises enough to avoid monotony. Quantz came off much better in his D major Duetto, which showed a command of the various means of combining two flutes to imply harmonies that can only come from high-level familiarity. S&S made cool, poised work of the minor-key Mesto (“sadly”) slow movement, finding a kernel of real emotion, then swept all that away with a glittering fast finale. Jacques Hotteterre attained prominence as a flutist and composer similar to that of Quantz, and his suite for two flutes had similar fluency in the instruments and vivacity in the music.
Like most people, I was not super-familiar with the literature for two or fewer flutes and no other instruments before this concert, so the only music on the program with which I was intimately familiar was the second suite for solo cello by the Bach from which the Sinfonia got its name. In his Haydn performances with Schultz and Stewart, Ellis provided a firm rhythmic underpinning, hitting his notes at just the right time to keep the melody aloft; playing by himself, he took a much more mercurial approach, sometimes burying the dance rhythms on which the suite draws in expressive gestures, sometimes accelerating or decelerating at unexpected times.
The constant gear-shifting made the opening movements feel a bit aimless, but in the “Sarabande” Ellis shaped the phrases so they sounded organic, like breathing, a striking effect. He also dug into the rhythms a little more in the final two dances, which made their effect stronger (for me, anyway). And throughout, his cello sounded lovely, rich and warm but with the occasional rasp and whisper that make the period cello such a captivating instrument. It was good to have all three performers on stage for the Haydn that closed the concert: we got to hear Schultz and Stewart back on classical flutes, along with Ellis — hearing, one last time, these instruments so well-played and playing so well together was a final treat in a concert full of them.
THE AUTHOR OF THIS BLOG IS FROM SILVER SPRING, MARYLAND
For this concert, Stewart not only wrote the program notes (which were engaging and lucid – professional program note writers should take heed) but also provided some intro remarks before most of the pieces (except Ellis’ solo). In one of these interludes, she mentioned that she is from Silver Spring (a graduate of Northwood HS) and that Schultz also has family in Silver Spring and in Rockville. It just goes to show – people from Silver Spring do great things. Or start blogs about other people who do great things.