Boston Baroque’s New Year’s Eve at Sanders Theatre entertained with two Brandenburg concertos along with Bach’s wedding and coffee cantatas. A huge turnout said as much for Martin Pearlman and his troupe of fine musicians as it did for the many listeners intent on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. A surprise encore, Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” topped the evening off pleasantly, if not oddly.
Time flew by, making it seem at concert’s end as though we had only arrived at intermission. Up tempos surely contributed, but so did the upbeat personality of soprano Courtney Huffman, and the vibrant musicality of instrumental soloists Marc Schachman, Aldo Abreu, and Christopher Krueger. Despite inconsistencies and questionable interpretations, the mood of celebration—further induced by the aroma of fresh coffee brewed onstage and wafting about the theater—would ultimately dominate.
Lightness prevailed in the opening movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, BWV 1049, Pearlman with the baton and Peter Sykes at the harpsichord. Such lightness from Baroque bows on gut strings, nodding to the era—and to our celebratory mood—distanced the overall affect. The period flutes of soloists Abreu and Krueger burbled. For the solo violin, the tempo taken for Allegro was a notch too speedy. Passages twice the rate of speed of the flutes could not be fully accommodated. Christina Day Martinson, principal violinist, barely kept pace, but more conspicuously, could barely be heard. A muted Andante gave way to the Boston Baroque becoming fully alive and vivacious in the final movement, compellingly transmitting the fugal patterns of the German master’s brainpower.
For me, soprano Huffman showed a few changes of mind in the “Wedding Cantata,” Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten, BWV 202. She could hardly be heard at the beginning of the opening aria, but her restrained voice played off the richly singing oboe, the two creating that Baroque sphere where voice and instrument find each other half way. In ensuing recitatives and arias, Huffman drew more upon operatic ways, opting for dramatic flair, albeit contained, this, both in her singing and role playing. Schrachman’s oboe embroidered Bach’s lines with a dense, soft, lustrous “voice.”
Three trios, one of violins, one of violas and one of violoncellos, formed the architecture of the third piece on the program. With Pearlman at the harpsichord, another Brandenburg Concerto , this one No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048, kept us in the same key we had been in all night! More changes of mind surfaced as well with the orchestra’s interpretation of Bach. I could surmise that this had primarily to do with finding the groove. Most obvious examples of these mental inconsistencies were to be found in sections of the music that were repeated. I would point to the reiterated opening of the wedding aria, Weichet nur, as well as that of the third movement of the third concerto. In the former, arpeggios became more cohesive, warmer when repeated. In the latter, the swirling nature of the ascending and descending scalar lines became more evident and more convincing the second time around. In spite of inconsistencies of the like and some scratchy bowing, No. 3 whizzed and amazed. Clearly the intent listeners thought so, too.
Though many are less familiar with the “Coffee Cantata,” Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 2011, upon hearing it, the melodic gifts of Bach shine indelibly impressed upon the mind. Pearlman believes that this cantata is the closest Bach ever came to writing an opera. Andrew Garland’s big, fatherly baritone voice and Matthew Anderson’s clear, finely tailored tenor joined Huffman in this performance that was fun, though more operatic than I would have wanted. I was hoping for a glimpse into Zimmerman’s Coffee House where this cantata would have been originally performed, perhaps with more of the equivalent of a jazz sound—that hybrid of vocal and instrumental imagination.
New Year’s Eve, with Bach and the Boston Baroque, was a uniquely entertaining celebration.