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BEMF’s Chamber Orchestra: Delightful One-To-A-Part Affair


It’s easy to forget the humble origins of the orchestra. Today we expect quadruple winds, massed strings, boomy brass. But a few hundred years ago, an orchestra was generally a one-to-a-part affair. Among the Boston Early Music Festival’s offerings was an “orchestral” (they also advertised with quotes) presentation: “A Grand Entertainment” at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on June 12. In full array, the conductor-less BEMF Chamber Ensemble included two violins, viola, cello, violone, flute, three oboes, bassoon, keyboard (harpsichord or organ), and theorbo. They shank and grew throughout the program.

Johann Friedrich Fasch’s Overture in G minor (FWV K: g 2) was cast in the form of a dance suite for full ensemble. His music gave the group the most opportunity to enjoy a groove, an invitation they usually took. Dominic Teresi’s phrasing on the bassoon was particularly elegant.

The fifth Brandenburg Concerto is a piece with a reputation. It was a delight to hear it presented by a scaled-down ensemble. They took the approach that one reaches transcendence in Bach through discipline and devotion of playing, and it paid off. The texture was consistently taught, but floated as if delicate lace. The notorious harpsichord part was easily devoured by Kristian Bezuidenhout, but the other soloists (Sandra Miller with flute, Robert Mealy with violin) were no less distinguished.

Jan Dismas Zelenka’s Overture Hipochondrie à 7 in A major (Z 187) did not leave a deep impression, but its slow-fast-slow form seemed unusual. It was more like an extended slow introduction leading to an Allegro, followed by a slow coda.

The Vivaldi Concerto in C major for mandolin (RV 425) was another delight. It’s easy to think of him as a concerto machine, deploying the same time-worn tricks again and again. But, hey, each piece is a little different, and those tricks get you to their own unique place. Paul O’Dette’s mandolin anchored those trademark resonant harmonies. All virtuosic playing must ultimately be effortless, some people just make more of a point out of it than others. He was “only” there for the joy of doing what he so clearly loves.

Telemann is another composer who gets written off pretty easily. His Ouverture in Bb major (TWV 55:B 10) engaged the full ensemble in another dance suite. It clocked in at nine movements, but the melodic and textural diversity prevented it from dragging. Several also felt more like snappy interludes. One of these, the Hornepipe, had some frequent meter changes that kept the dancers on their toes.

A footnote: BEMF is to be commended for its fecund “Fringe” concert offerings, also.

Ed: This is one of 11 full reviews by Boston Musical Intelligencer reviewers of concerts from the 2009 Boston Early Music Festival.

Adam Baratz is a composer and pianist. He lives in Cambridge.

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