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Power of “Light” Music with Newton Baroque


“Wit, Invention and Charm”: Newton Baroque minced no words for the title of their May 13 concert at Second Church of Newton.  In a program devoted to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), with works by Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), the period-instrument quartet highlighted the spry rhythms and clever dialogs of the Galant era. While many critics describe this transitional period between Baroque and Classical as lacking technical or emotional gravity, Newton Baroque demonstrated how “lighthearted” does not necessarily mean “light” music.  Without overpowering this music or making it sound precious, Newton Baroque ensured that Emanuel Bach’s humor and imagination never evaporated into frivolity.

The fifth child of Johann Sebastian Bach, Emanuel Bach was clearly influenced by his famous father’s contrapuntal mastery and virtuoso keyboard technique. Emanuel blended those influences into his own melodic and harmonic concept, making him a widely admired composer and keyboardist in his time.  His fans included longtime employer Frederick the Great as well as Mozart.

Emanuel’s playful Quartet in G Major for Flute, Viola and Fortepiano, Wq 95, incorporated plenty of fleet-fingered keyboard display, while his Trio Sonata in C Major for Flute, Violin and Continuo, Wq 147, opened with an easygoing exchange between flute and violin but closed with a contrapuntal chase between the two instruments.  The vibrant imitations of the Quartet’s closing “Presto” showed Emanuel absorbing his father’s teaching, but the surprising, cadence-free fadeout of the “Adagio” was a lesson from the son’s book.  Emanuel clearly savored sudden emotional and harmonic shifts, such as the angular curves and jarring passing tones of the otherwise straight-laced Sonata in E Minor for Flute and Continuo, Wq 124.

The bright, transparent sheen of Andrus Madsen’s fortepiano animated the ensemble from inside during accompaniment, while solo lines in the Quartet’s first movement and the Sonata for Flute’s “Menuet” were handled with sly wit and an infectious lilt.  Occasionally the pianoforte’s tubby lower register became muddled in ensemble, but Madsen showed off a powerful left hand gallop during his improvised solo Fantasie in G Minor (credit is due to this performer for continuing the improvised as well as written traditions of this music).

Laura Jeppesen’s viola da gamba added massive yet graceful bass lines throughout the concert, with her rich, grainy sound stealing the show whenever the other instruments briefly paused. Unfortunately Na’ama Lion’s otherwise velvety flute was marred by issues with breath support and intonation, losing momentum during fast passages in the Quartet and Sonata for Flute and also failing to jell with Jeppesen’s viola in the Quartet.  The ensemble itself also encountered difficulties with tempo and blend during some denser contrapuntal passages, but their spirited engagement more than compensated for an occasionally less than airtight sound.

Lion and Maiben partnered beautifully in the Trio Sonata, a heartwarming narrative of two friends guiding and then benevolently challenging one another. The Sonata showed off violinist Dana Maiben’s brilliant tone and confident technique as an instrumental lead, yet she demonstrated a poet’s sense of line in a riveting account of Telemann’s Italianate Fantasie in F Minor for Solo Violin, TWV 40:16.  Knowing just when to hold back or push forward, Maiben squeezed every naked, unaccompanied note while never strangling them for exaggerated effect.

The Quartet in E Minor, TWV 43e:1 by Telemann, a Bach family friend (and godfather to Emanuel) closed the evening with the full ensemble.  While the “Gay,” “Vite” and “Distrait” movements were characterized by humor, tunefulness and catchy rhythms, the concluding “Modere” movement ended the concert on more reflective terms.  Newton Baroque explored this work with the energy of a chamber opera, while the warm resonance of Second Church’s sanctuary illuminated this and every other work on the program.

Newton Baroque’s musicianship belied the modest instrumentation and short critical shrift given to these works.  With dedicated musicians of this caliber eager to open audiences up to new experiences, the repertoire may run out of so-called “obscurities.”

Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz, and blogs about a variety of music here.  He also plays clarinet, and resides in Cambridge, MA.

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