The Chamber Music Society of St. Louis passes the torch from Bach to Schubert
By Gary Liam Scott
Written by Gary Liam Scott
Sometimes evolution doesn't follow a straight path. Themed "Romancing the Baroque"—tracing the lines of music history as it streamed from the Baroque period to the early years of the Romantic era—the inaugural program of the 15th season of the Chamber Music Society of St. Louis (on September 18, 2023) provoked the observation that maybe in some ways the Baroque period shared more in common with the later Romantic period than it did with the immediately ensuing Classical period. The Baroque composers shared a sense of drama and personal reflection--marked by musical renderings of the four seasons, religious passion, private musical jokes, heroism, human and divine struggle--that seemed to point to the intensity and reflection of the Romantic era more than to the formalism of the Classical period.
International conductor and St. Louis favorite Nicholas McGegan, in his only St. Louis engagement this year, directed the program. Originally booked as artist-in-residence at Washington University for one semester in 1979, McGegan's tenure at Washington U. continued until 1985, and his appearances as guest conductor have continued until the present day.
The concert began with the Harpsichord Concerto No. 3 in D Major by J. S. Bach, with Charles Metz as soloist. Like McGegan, Dr. Metz can boast of a long history as a performer in high demand in St. Louis. The Bach keyboard concertos mark the beginning of the grand tradition of piano concertos that reached dazzling heights during the Romantic era. Bach's concertos seem to echo the passionate soaring passages of the Romantic composers more than the more formulaic Classical works of the genre. A performer's hands and fingers must fire with accuracy in Bach, and although the harpsichord on stage is a much quieter instrument than the modern grand piano, Metz displayed the necessary quick-witted technique required.
Roger Kaza and Thomas Jostlein teamed together as soloists for the Concerto in E-flat Major for two horns by Georg Philipp Telemann, taken from his "Musique de table." Although highly esteemed during his lifetime (more so than his good friend Bach), Telemann is not quite so well known today. But this work demonstrated that he is a composer of considerable talent and originality, worthy of closer inspection. Full of strident hunting and outdoor effects in addition to stately melodies (suitable for indoor "table" use by wealthy patrons), the horns evoke the heroic gestures we associate with the Romantic period. Jostlein and Kaza performed solidly as a duo, matching each other dynamically and with careful intonation.
It seemed that McGegan's gifts gleamed brightest in the second half of the program, which consisted of Franz Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 83 in G Minor, "La poule" (The Hen, due to the clucking sounds written for oboe and flute) and the Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major by a youthful Franz Schubert--who at the age of nineteen had already lived substantially more than half his allotted lifespan of 31 years. McGegan conducted with energy and full expression in these popular works. The assembled chamber orchestra of 25 players performed with seamless legato and near-perfect intonation as they followed McGegan's hands-directed choreography with exuberance and vibrant energy. The swift yet careful phrasing required in these two works enabled the ensemble to sing with verve and soaring agility.
It is wonderful that the Chamber Music Society (CMSSL) includes the nurturing of future audiences in its mission, and Executive and Artistic Director Marc Gordon has worked faithfully to uphold this plank. Nic McGegan's brief but cogent commentary from the podium provided a great means of helping new listeners understand the works that were performed and their historical context. As our education system continues to decline, it becomes the role and duty of all serious performing musicians to view themselves as educators and guardians of the flame of knowledge. And, being committed to practicing their craft as well as teaching its appreciation and execution, performers make the best teachers. CMSSL has provided both performances and education for audiences for nearly 15 years now, and they have engaged some of our finest local musicians to do so, along with notables from other parts of our world.