The Chamber Orchestra of Boston’s inaugural concert of the 2011-12 season was equal parts intrigue and instruction. Presented Saturday evening, November 5 in the live, relatively intimate venue of First Church in Boston, the thematically-based program, “Evening in the Palace of Reason,” was essentially a musical realization of the eponymous book authored by James R. Gaines. A colorful double-biography, the incident at the core of this work was an incendiary meeting between a venerable composer and a young monarch. In this corner: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), highly acclaimed yet anachronistic musician representing the passion, mystery, and complex filigree of the Baroque period. In the opposing camp: the King of Prussia, Frederick Hohenzollern, aka Frederick the Great (1712-1786), rational proponent of the simple, logical new Galante Style. Apparently, Bach arrived at the king’s court in 1747 unaware of the volatile cultural implications of his visit. Given that one of his sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel, was a chamber musician for FtG, Herr Bach was most likely anticipating a pleasant family reunion of sorts. Instead, so the story goes, he was immediately whisked before the king, at which point Frederick threw down the musical gauntlet by presenting him with a rather convoluted 21-note theme (possibly created by son CPE) and demanding that he improvise a three-voice fugue on the spot. Much to King Frederick’s chagrin, Bach was more than up to the task, though he then demurred when asked to create a virtually impossible six-voice composition (responding two months later with his towering Musical Offering, BWV 1079).
Given this historical backdrop, the COB’s music director, David Feltner, crafted a program highlighting works composed by the associated cast of characters: Frederick the Great, CPE Bach, Johann Joachim Quantz (FtG’s flute teacher), and J. S. Bach, as well as interjecting a contemporary piece also derived from the book, penned by Libby Larsen (b. 1950).
Frederick the Great was actually an ardent music lover and quite an accomplished flutist, much to the consternation of his militaristic father, who just couldn’t relate to his gay offspring’s aesthetic sensibilities. It’s a familiar tale, which in this case involves a beheading (long story; you’ll have to read the book). Frederick’s Concerto I in G Major for Flute, Strings and Continuo got the evening off to a frothy start. Translucent, effervescent, and upbeat, this well-crafted work is quintessential Galante fare, with straightforward structures and instrumental interactions that pleasantly tickled both ear and cortex. Though as a composer he may have only been Frederick the Quite Good, this music was nonetheless surprisingly satisfying. Flute soloist Renée Krimsier deftly handled the brisk passages with a sweet tone, shapely phrasing, and clean ornamentation. She projected a warm, friendly persona that complemented this sunny music. Feltner’s conducting was graceful and gently precise as he propelled the group along with energetic tempi. He exuded positive energy, as did the entire group; all seemed to genuinely enjoy sharing this music. The conductor’s insightful and engaging comments prior to each piece augmented the audience’s understanding and appreciation of the works.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s (1714-1788) Sinfonia III in C Major had a decidedly different flavor. This music was distinctly more complex than FtG’s, featuring a fistful of jarring musical twists and turns of phrase and sinuous melodic lines. CPE apparently had a penchant for the unexpected, even tossing in the B-A-C-H motif, though as an homage to his father or himself is anyone’s guess. Ostensibly in the shiny new compositional style, there were more than a few threatening clouds scudding across the azure Galante skies of this moody and changeable work. The COB players adroitly handled Bach’s musical peregrinations with solid, though at times fleetingly asynchronous, playing.
The sun burst forth in full radiance in the Concerto in G Major for Flute, Strings and Continuo of Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773). Considered the premiere flutist of eighteenth century Europe, Quantz was also an extremely fecund composer, churning out in excess of 300 concerti! He was also Frederick the Great’s flute instructor, secretly providing lessons behind Frederick’s father’s back. Ah yes, more intrigue. This music was positively giddy: high-voltage, lyrical melodic lines, virtuosic passages, and a Presto that buzzed along like a hyperactive honeybee. Once again flutist Krimsier’s playing was buoyant and sure-fingered (not to mention sure-lipped), despite a wildly swaying pendant-style earring that seemed at times to swing perilously close to her instrument.
After the light-dark-light structure of the first half, the post-intermission offerings were a juxtaposition of new and old. Libby Larsen’s Evening in the Palace of Reason (there’s that name again), composed in 2007 and given its Boston première this evening, interweaves Frederick the Great’s twenty-one-note challenge to J. S. Bach, the familiar B-A-C-H theme, and much more musical juiciness in a clever work that grabs the listener’s ear and doesn’t let go. This dark chocolate music was the antithesis of Frederick the Great’s puff pastry. Fascinating to hear centuries-old themes refracted through a contemporary musical lens. Larsen’s twenty-first century vocabulary is spiky and edgy, with playful, rippling interplay between instruments. The COB’s performance was extremely coherent and precise, as they capably handled passages replete with note-bending and percussive effects.
And then there was the Orchestral Suite II in b minor by the Master himself, Johann Sebastian Bach. Standing head, shoulders, and torso above his musical contemporaries, his exquisite musical lines and understated sophistication exist in their own transcendent realm. Even in this relatively sweet suite of dance movements, there is depth and complexity. Both playing and conducting were graceful and elegant; I did have a slight quibble with tempo selections, as the slower movements tended to drag ever so slightly. The final Badinerie (roughly equivalent to a Scherzo), however, was pleasingly frisky as we boogied down with Bach.
All told, an immensely satisfying experience that left both heart and mind sated. (As for the stomach, the COB even provided a generous German spread at the après-concert reception. Jawohl!) Thoughtful program selection, accomplished playing, helpful commentary: this event was engaging on multiple levels, and very warmly received. Flute soloist Renée Krimsier was actually presented with not one, but two colorful bouquets. And now to finish that book …
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.