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Sunday, 21 October 2012 19:11

Concert review: An invitation to the dance from Nicholas McGegan and the symphony at Powell Hall Friday and Sunday, October 19 and 21

philharmonia.org philharmonia.org
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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Concertgoers seeking an aural palette cleanser after three weeks of great Romantic music at Powell Hall got their heart’s desire this weekend as guest conductor Nicholas McGegan led an irresistible program of "Baroque Fireworks".

The evening included some flashy Vivaldi concerti as well as performances of Bach's First Orchestral Suite (BWV 1066) and Handel's "Royal Fireworks Music" that never lost sight of the fact that this is music based on popular dances.

Mr. McGegan was definitely swinging the Baroque and, judging from the gleeful way he rubbed his hands in anticipation of the final movement of the Vivaldi “Concerto in D major for 2 Violins”, having a great deal of fun in the process. It’s a pity the house wasn’t larger, but maybe that’s what happens when chamber music goes up against baseball playoffs.

Like many of the great composers of their time, Bach and Handel often worked for the government. The Bach suite that opened the concert, for example, was probably written for the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, where Bach was the resident composer and music director from 1717 to 1723.

The prince was fond of what symphony program annotator Paul Schiavo describes as “lively secular instrumental music”, and Bach filled the bill nicely with an appealing site of six dances preceded by a short “French overture” (the name possibly refers to the fact that the form first appears in the operas of Jean Baptiste Lully) with its characteristic majestic opening followed by a main section.

If some of the recordings of the Bach suites in my collection are any indication, it’s easy to treat this music as weighty stuff. Even in his “light” music, after all, Bach couldn’t stop being a genius at counterpoint. Mr. McGegan’s interpretation, however, never lost the strong rhythmic pulse that reminds us of the suite’s terpsichorean origins. And what wonderfully precise playing by the oboes and bassoon! Bach is particularly generous to their instruments here, and they made the most of it.

Fine solo playing was also the hallmark of the three Vivaldi concerti that made up the middle part of the program. Symphony first violinists Helen Kim and Xiaoxiao Qiang ripped through the 1720 “Concerto in D major for 2 Violins” with a mix of fierce concentration and virtuosity, as did principal second violinist Alison Harney in the roughly contemporary “Concerto in F major for Solo Violin, 2 Oboes, Bassoon, 2 Horns”.

In the A minor bassoon concerto, originally written for one of the many gifted pupils at the Pio Ospedale della Pietá (where Vivaldi was the resident composer, teacher, and music director for much of his career), principal bassoon Andrew Cuneo demonstrated that he was equally at home with the flashy passagework of the outer movements and the more lyrical material of the Larghetto. It’s always a joy to see the orchestra members take center stage.

The evening concluded with a rousing “Royal Fireworks Music”, one of the more popular examples of “big band” Handel. The 1749 fireworks display for which it was written may have been a bust—the entire pavilion burned down before the show could even start—but the music has since become firmly entrenched in the standard repertoire. As with the Bach, Mr. McGegan and the musicians turned in a reading that was lively without sacrificing precision. The brasses, in particular, sounded spectacular, including the smaller (and therefore harder to play) “Bach trumpets” of which Handel was so fond.

Peter Henderson also deserves a tip of the tricorne for his consistently solid harpsichord continuo playing throughout the concert. The keyboardist is, in many ways, the backbone of the ensemble for this material, even if he rarely gets any solo shots.

Next on the symphony calendar is a Pulitzer Series concert at the Pulitzer Foundation on Wednesday, October 24, featuring music by Luciano Berio, Luca Francescon, and Ivan Fedele. The weekend of October 26 through 28 brings screenings of “The Wizard of Oz” with the score performed live by the orchestra, and the regular season returns on November 2 and 3 with Yefim Bronfman performing Brahms’s imposing “Piano Concerto No. 2”. Helsinki Philharmonic Chief Conductor John Storgårds will be on the podium for the concerts, which include Webern’s arrangement of Bach’s “Ricercar No. 2” from “The Musical Offering” and Schumann’s “Symphony No. 4”. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

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