IN: Reviews

BEMF “Orchestra at Play” Tried to Play Too Much?


BEMF-Orchestra-with Kristian-Bezuidenhout, harpsichord (Andre-Costantini photo)

“The Orchestra at Play” featured performances of festive concertos, suites and sinfonias by the players of the Boston Early Music Festival directed by violinist Robert Mealy. Jordan Hall was packed. Onstage, up to twenty-five members at a time stood before their music stands, smiling and leaning into and out of the Baroque exchanges of Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel, and J.S. Bach. The star of the show for me and others had to have been Gonzalo X. Ruiz, oboe, whose sound and soul had to have come from heaven.

Upon completing a work on the first half of the animated and ever so fast-moving program, one of the instrumentalists looked to both director and audience to show his approval not only with an unreservedly gleaming smile, but with an enthusiastic thumb-up punctuating his complete satisfaction. Also on hand for the Festival’s evening concert on Thursday, June 16, was guest artist and harpsichord soloist, the rising star in early music, Kristian Bezuidenhout. And at concert’s end came charged applause spurring a short and peppy encore, “Réjouissance’ from Bach’s Fourth Suite.

Making my way out of New England Conservatory after the joyous Bach, it appeared to me that despite the warmth and stuffiness inside Jordan Hall, BEMF’s “festival concert” rejuvenated most every one of the concert-goers. Their liveliness filling the exit ways coming after ten o’clock at night was surely quite something to behold — it couldn’t be missed. So, I asked myself, “What’s music for? “This,” I answered without hesitation.

Yet another observation: BEMF distributed printed programs on yellow paper and only on one-half of an eight and one-half  by eleven-inch sized sheet. Going green? What struck me more, though, about that “free” one-half of a yellow page was, shall I say, how “clean” it was of histories, bios, and other information usually found in today’s program. Their printed program in a small font was, nonetheless, a fine alternative for me.

As to my own take on “The Orchestra at Play” I’m going with a suggestion made to me recently: “what really matters is if the music itself gets to you.” So, as a reviewer, I realize the necessity of providing some explanation of what I heard — or didn’t hear.

Beginning with the Harpsichord Concerto in A major of Bach, there simply was far too much orchestra for the refined double-manual instrument by D. Jacques Way. How odd to watch the gifted Bezuidenhout’s facial and body interpretations of the music with virtually no audio! Even when BEMF paired down to trio- and quintet-sized proportions, most of the time only a sprinkle of sound made its way to my ears. This was a major miscalculation which I am sure was noticed by others as well.

Somewhat of that same problem, one of balance, figured into the other performances where top heaviness was in evidence. The basso continuo idea of the era became more a shadow of itself,   violins being the main perpetrators, trumpets less so. Tympani overpowered in the Bach Sinfonia BWV 249, though it was just right in the Suite No. 3 in D major BWV 1068.

I craved hearing even more of the extraordinarily divineness from Ruiz’s oboe.

Still another major miscalculation, if you will, that promoted a difficult night of listening for me was BEMF’s indulgence in minutiae, or missing the forest for the trees. In the Vivaldi Overture to L’Olimpiade theatrics overtook true musical drama and shape, extremes in dynamics the culprit here. Real physical drama surfaced in the final section of Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in D major, Op. 6, no. 4 right before intermission but too little, too late.

The Gigue closing the Bach Suite was a winner, its clearly dancing outlines taken to heart by the orchestra. Air was scattered, affects and affectations reducing the whole to little parts.

Obvious passion and accomplishment for Baroque ideals from each player were overwhelmed by trying to do too much — an orchestra at play. I think they had a much better time of it than I. Inward and outward other-worldliness, such as that in Gonzalo X. Ruiz’s playing, could be their model.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I don’t know where Mr. Patterson was sitting, but where I was downstairs on the side not far from the stage, we heard both the oboe and the harpsichord beautifully. And I definitely did not find that the tympani and brass overwhelmed the other instruments. Instead, what I heard was a sometimes soaring, sometimes sweet, sometimes sizzling synchrony of instruments and ear-opening originality of interpretation.

    The enormously enthusiastic audience reaction I believe confirms this view.

    Comment by Gloria Leitner — June 18, 2011 at 8:12 am

  2. Being also at the performance, I believe the reaction of some in the audience — including mine — was of appreciation for this group, more than for the performance. In Row F center, the harpsichord was darn near inaudible. And balance was a problem, as more than we have attested.

    And, yes, the lecture/performance by Bezuidenhout on Friday was a pleasure. A review will appear here soon.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — June 18, 2011 at 11:02 am

  3. This program is available at NPR Classical as well as WGBH both are in 2 parts. Janice Hegeman

    The NPR link is:

    The WGBH link is:

    The actual program notes can be downloaded from WGBH as well:

    Comment by Janice Hegeman — June 23, 2011 at 11:00 pm

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