The line of composers connected to Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) grows larger with every score and sample, yet Emmanuel Music’s “Connected by Bach” program centered on more overt links between Bach and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Bach and his contemporaries were galvanizing influences on Stravinsky, yet the orchestra and vocalists of Emmanuel Music sounded less than energized by these composers last night.
Beginning with Bach’s Orchestral Suite Number 4 in D Major (BWV 1069), issues with clarity, as well as a subdued, occasionally lackluster approach were apparent. This was the earliest of Bach’s four orchestral suites, and the German Baroque master took his own liberties with the form’s conventions in expressing a variety of “affects” and effects. Conductor Ryan Turner emphasized the right beats for a suitable “Ouvertüre,” yet poor projection from the basses and splintered brass failed to make a grand impression. Emmanuel Church’s cavernous acoustic didn’t help, diffusing the sound of players seated at the rear of the orchestra and virtually obliterating the harpsichord’s harmonic and rhythmic underpinning. Tubby bassoon runs behind the oboes undermined tight phrasing by the section and obstructed the dancing quality of the “Bourrée.” The ensemble was more balanced and warmed slightly for the strutting “Gavotte” rhythms, and they handled the “Menuet” gracefully without turning twee. Yet the closing “Réjouissance” substituted a faster tempo for transparency. The overall impression was of deference to, rather than engagement with, Bach’s music.
Critic Michael Steinberg described Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat (subtitled “Dumbarton Oaks” in honor of its commissioner’s home) as evoking Bach’s “external habits” with the “real substance” remaining uniquely Stravinskian. The first movement “Tempo Giusto” is heavily influenced by Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto, especially the use of three dialoging sections of violins, violas and cellos, as well as the jogging chord progressions. Stravinsky added horns, woodwinds, and basses as well as his own dissonances and rhythmic juxtapositions to the lucid lines, contrapuntal intricacy and motor rhythms associated with Bach.
Emmanuel Music was most convincing with just the 10 strings and five winds of this historical exchange. Turner took the first movement at a modest clip that allowed Stravinsky’s arresting harmonies to peek out subtly. He also pulled the French horns, chalumeau clarinet, and bassoon together just as they started to drag, and slyly underscored Stravinsky’s reference to the minor key turnaround in Bach’s concerto. The second movement “Allegretto” featured sensitive choreography between the three main string sections, though a rich clarinet had to compete with a shrill flute. The concluding “Con Moto” added swagger to cohesive syncopations over a trouncing bass line.
Unfortunately, the full orchestra scaled back Stravinsky’s energy and humor for their turn at Pulcinella following the intermission. Stravinsky’s one-act ballet with voices involves characters from traditional Neapolitan commedia dell’arte, with Stravinsky contributing modern orchestration and “wrong notes” to music ascribed (mistakenly) to late Baroque/Galant composer Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-1736). This tuneful, energetic and quirky work began with a polite “Ouverture” and attractive yet reserved violin and cello solos on Saturday. The cantabile theme for oboe in the “Serenata” was played with similar nonchalance, while livelier sections sounded workmanlike. Stravinsky’s upbeat “Tarantella” came across too smooth, never kicking or pushing forward, while the horns of the “Gavotta” huffed without momentum or coordination. The lumbering tempo in the “Vivo” movement, with its trombone glissandi and blustering double basses, drained it of any whimsy or style. A storming “Allegro Assai” demonstrated the orchestra combining powerfully for massed sections; yet clarity of individual parts still presented a problem, for example the awkward horn blends marring an otherwise mellifluous, lighthearted “Scherzino.”
The three vocalists took the same technically secure but emotionally cool approach. Tenor Charles Blandy sang the first aria, “Mentre l’erbetta” (“On the grass”), a pastoral image set to the same gorgeous melody as the “Serenata,” with clear diction, firm range and relaxed, nearly aloof delivery, only coloring “sola” (“alone”) ever so slightly. The longest aria, “Se tu m’ami” (“If you love me”) is a passionate warning from a woman to those who expect her consistently to return their affections. Katherine Gowdon’s slender mezzo supplied the text merely as a stock character in a Neo-Classical reworking of a Baroque text, offering neither coyness nor empathy to her subject. Postmodern detachment rather than sincerity or flow seemed to shape the vocals. Separating Blandy and Gowdon from bass-baritone Dana Whiteside on opposite sides of the stage only detracted further from the mix or meaning of the trios “Sento dire no’nce pace” (“I hear it said there is no peace”) and “Pupillette, fiammette d’amore” (“Fair eyes, sparking with love”). Whiteside in turn sang his solo on “Con queste paroline”(“With these words”) at the other extreme, with an over-enthusiasm bound to intimidate the object of his affection.
The evening also included Rafael Popper-Keizer performing Fancy on a Bach Air, for unaccompanied cello by John Corigliano (born 1938). Based on the theme from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the note of tragedy pervading this piece (its dedicatee died suddenly in the midst of its composition) was given full voice through the cellist’s arching narrative. Beginning simply with long tones, Popper-Keizer demonstrated a consistent sense of line and attention to detail, connecting every gesture, from initial sadness, to utter hopelessness, to final, inevitable resolve. He leaned into Corigliano’s shattering dissonances with confidence as well as a sense of their significance to the “story” and demonstrated a focused yet delicate upper register towards the end of the piece. Performer, composer, and inspiration teamed up to communicate a variety of feelings and ideas without exaggeration or understatement.
Andrew J. Sammut is a clarinetist and also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz. He also blogs on a variety of music at clefpalette.wordpress.com and lives in Cambridge.