in: Reviews

January 22, 2011

Dust Blown Off Zesty Zelenka

by

Ben Fox, Sebastian Chaves, Akiko Sato, and Cameron Kirkpatrick (Michael Rocha photo)

There’s a new chamber music group in town: The Boston Zelenka Project performed its debut concert Thursday evening, 20 January 2011, in the warm and pleasingly resonant confines of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain, as part of the J.P. Concerts series.

Oboists Cameron Kirkpatrick and Ben Fox, bassoonist Sebastian Chaves, and harpsichordist Akiko Sato are young, fresh-faced, dynamic, enthusiastic, and highly capable proponents of Baroque music. The eponymous composer of their nascent musical collaboration, Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745), was a Czech musician whose name today is generally unfamiliar to even the most well informed classical music aficionados. Born in Bohemia, Zelenka spent his adult life toiling in relative obscurity in the city of Dresden, churning out a large body of work while never marrying or fathering any offspring. That he is largely unknown today is due to a confluence of factors, none of which has anything to do with the actual quality of his compositions. His focus on large-scale, difficult liturgical works tended to make him inaccessible to the amateur musicians of his day; after his death his oeuvre languished behind the Iron Curtain until its rediscovery in the 1950s. As the BZelP members themselves put it, this is “rockin’ Baroque music” that’s not exactly “consumer-friendly.”

Not surprisingly, given their name, the BZP’s mission is to shine a bright light on the vastly underappreciated works of J. D. Zelenka. Specifically, they’re creating a series of concerts showcasing his six trio sonatas—the sum total of his secular output. In addition to the first of these sonatas, Thursday’s inaugural event featured works by two of Zelenka’s contemporaries, Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773) and Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767).

Quantz, another accomplished musician whose name has faded over time, was an innovative German flutist and flute designer as well as a prolific composer, who authored over 300 flute concerti. He crossed paths with Zelenka in Dresden, studying counterpoint with the elder composer in 1717. His Trio Sonata in G Major got the evening off to an uplifting start. The clear, contrapuntal dialogue between the oboes and the steady, succinct continuo of the bassoon and keyboard combined to pleasing effect. The BZP members performed this relatively straightforward music expressively, with smooth phrasing that breathed life into the notes.

George Philipp Telemann … now there’s a familiar name! The antithesis in terms of renown to the other two composers on the program, Telemann was well known, wealthy, long-lived (like Saint-Saëns, making it to age 86), and massively prolific (both musically and paternally, as he sired ten children). His Bassoon Sonata in F minor, TWV 41:f1 is a virtuosic showpiece that’s not for the faint-lipped or faint-lunged. Sebastian Chaves is apparently neither, as he plunged in with gusto and performed the hell out of the piece with a lively, lyrical, and full-bodied interpretation. At times his bassoon took on the aural characteristics of the town busybody in full gossip mode.

With the music of two of his counterparts still reverberating in our ears, the pièce de résistance of the evening, J. D. Zelenka’s Trio Sonata No. 1 in F Major was almost startling in its complexity and virtuosity. It should be noted that musicians of the Dresden court were only required to play a single instrument, resulting in a generally higher level of proficiency. This, perhaps, is at least a partial explanation for the challenging nature of Zelenka’s compositions. This is extremely well crafted, tightly woven music that, especially in the fugal second movement, is actually quite reminiscent of the output of J. S. Bach. The “Baroque sewing machine” in all its contrapuntal splendor was on full display. The intricate, glittering passages were handled with ease and musicality by oboists Kirkpatrick and Fox; the continuo deftly woven by bassoonist Chaves and harpsichordist Sato. Quite the ride.

All in all, most definitely a pleasant and enlightening way to spend an early evening. Myriad notes were packed in to a mere forty minutes of music-making. The exuberant and highly capable BZP are certainly worthy ambassadors for the undeservedly obscure Jan Dismas Zelenka. Their vivacity and chops emphatically blew away centuries of dust. The second of their Zelenka Trio Sonata Series is scheduled for February 22.

Michael Rocha is a self-described “long-ago” music teacher, a long-time music enthusiast and pianist, and a short-time Web designer: http://www.cobaltocumulus.com. He has an MS in Meteorology from MIT.

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