IN: Reviews

Six New “Brandenburgs” Show Vigor


Gil Rose
Gil Rose

It is surely not too much to say that the most highly honored, best-loved, and most frequently performed group of instrumental compositions of the Baroque era—or perhaps any other time— is the set of six concertos that J.S. Bach copied into a beautiful manuscript and sent, in March 1721, to the Margrave Christian of Brandenburg. The six  remarkably different concertos call for varied instrumentation, and show a wide ranging expressive characteristics.

The conductorless Orpheus Ensemble came up with the good idea in 2005 to commission new works from six contemporary composers, each of whom would choose one of the original Brandenburg six as a model. The essential element of modeling was the choice of instrumentation, though most of the concertos would adjust Bach’s original scoring to some degree or other. These six new works were first performed in separate concerts over a period of four years from 2006 to 2009.

It was an even better idea when Gil Rose decided to put all six of the newly reimagined Brandenburg concertos into a single program for Boston Modern Orchestra Project, both because new works of this sort often have to struggle to get a second or third performance, and because the set offers a delightful opportunity to experience a wide range of new recent compositions by six strikingly different composers.

As it played out at Jordan Hall on January 22nd, the experiment was a decided success. I found only one of the six pieces dismayingly incoherent. For the most part they evinced imagination, colorfulness, vigor and lyricism by turns. Several involved soloists separate from the ensemble. Most often this was the violin; Gabriela Diaz displayed marvels of energy and projection in no fewer than three of the six concertos (plus leading roles in others).

BMOP is in the process of completing a recording of orchestral music by Stephen Hartke, who also happened to be the first of the six composers to write one of the new Brandenburgs. Perhaps through choosing to perform and record this one piece, did the happy program idea to include all six come to the conductor. Hartke’s contribution, A Brandenburg Autumn (2006), is based on Bach’s No. 1, which was scored for three oboes, two horns, violino piccolo, strings, and continuo. Hartke allows the oboes to double on English horns (he said he wanted to hear the unusual sonority of three English horns in unison, fortissimo).

Hartke shapes his in four movements as Bach had done, though they do not correspond in tempo or mood with the originals. The joyous and busy sonorities certainly suggest Bach’s, though at a historical remove. Hartke’s four movements come closest to the slow-fast-slow-fast layout most common in a sonata da chiesa, but the moods are more distinctly secular, as befits these concertos. Following the performance, the BMOP players recorded this one for the future Hartke CD.

Christipher Theofanidis kept his 2007 Muse in “the same general sound world” (his words) as Bach’s original: a string orchestra with violins, violas, and cellos divided in threes, plus bass and harpsichord. The busy running melodic line in Bach’s original is hinted at (though not imitated) in Theaofanidis’s triple meter. Bach’s middle “movement” consists notoriously of just two chords (presumably an invitation to the leader for some improvisation); Theofanidis writes a sustained, tranquil, ornate line that offers a perfect repose between the outer movements. For the finale, he presents a theme familiar from Bach’s work, though not one that normally appears in a concerto: a chorale tune that Bach used many times, Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland. Overall this concerto seemed like the most Bachlike in sonority and structure, though clearly through a modern pen.

The first half ended with Little Moonhead: Three Tributaries (2008), by Melinda Wagner, one of the two composers who was in the audience for the performance. Her chosen model was Bach’s No. 4, with strings in the usual four parts, two violins, viola, and cello/bass, with the addition of a violin solo (Gabriala Diaz) and two flute (Sarah Brady and Rachel Braude). The main surprise in the instrumentation was the fact that harpsichordist Raymond Chow also doubled on the celesta.

Like the title as a whole, each of the movements has a quirky title as well: “Little Prelude (with Rills)” highlighted the violin, while the flutes remained in the background with the rest of the ensemble. “Moon Ache” is a slow nocturne with flutes and violin as joint soloists, and the shimmer of a moonlit scene expressed by the celesta. The finale “Fiddlehead: Scrubby and impertinent” builds up a great head of steam as the solo violin’s showy part and a reference to Bach’s musical signature (B-A-C-H as they are labeled in German, B-flat, A, C, B-natural in English) make way for an exciting coda that served as a perfect energetic close to the first half.

Aaron Jay Kernis’s Concerto with Echoes (2009) was one of the most recent of these new Brandenburgs. He chose the sixth Bach concerto, which has a remarkably rich sonority, dispensing with violins for two violas da braccia (the kind played in the traditional way, under the chin, two violas da gamba (held vertically in the lap and bowed like a cello, and one each of cello and bass for the bottom line, plus harpsichord. Kernis modernized the string ensemble (pairs of violas, cellos, and basses), but added quite a battery, as well as oboes and horns (such as were heard in the first concerto). Indeed, he conceives his concerto as beginning at the end of Bach’s cycle, and with the addition of the wind instruments in the second and third movements, suggesting an arc back to the first concerto, plus a trumpet, which appears only in Bach’s second concerto.

Rather than maintaining a steady tempo in each movement, as Baroque music does, Kernis begins the first movement (“Lontano”) gently, as if in the distance, then explodes in virtuosi display. As befits his title, lines mirror one another and develop a full complex texture. The slow movement is a passacaglia layering imitative spirals of sound over the slow repeating bass line. And instead of destroying that mood for a fast, driven close, Kernis chooses to end in an unusual way, with a slow lamenting aria (“grieving” and “graceful” in his tempo markings)

Peter Maxwell Davies contribution also arrived at a late stage in the commissioning cycle. Sea Orpheus (2009) contains this composer’s signature references to the sea, near which he lives, as well as examples of his literary inspiration from his neighbor, the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown. Characteristic, too, is the use of a plainsong melody, Tantum ergo sacramentum, as a source of (not really recognizable) musical material. Bach’s fifth Brandenburg calls for flute, violin, and harpsichord solos; Bach creates a real surprise when, late in the first movement, the harpsichord escapes, so to speak, and takes off on an extended, great cadenza of unsurpassed virtuosity. Maxwell Davies uses the piano here, played with extraordinary brilliance by Angela Kim. The other two soloists were Sarah Brady, flute, and Gabriela Diaz, violin.

At first the three soloists are introduced singly, as befits good concerto manners, but the keyboard cadenza (which any knowledgeable listener will expect) seems overdone and overbalanced with sections for left hand alone, then for right hand alone, and finally for the two together. The balance of effect is better achieved in the slow movement, where the soloists are unaccompanied. The finale is hard to parse with its diverse tempi, with the piano absenting itself from fellow soloists, and with a general air of confusing, at least to these ears. The performance was vivid and, as far as I could tell, accurate, but the piece itself seemed less successful than the others in this program.

The sixth of the new versions channeled the most brilliant of Bach’s originals. Paul Moravec updated the master’s cast of four diverse solo instruments—recorder, oboe, trumpet, and violin—by changing the recorder to flute (Sarah Brady) and the oboe to clarinet (Michael Norsworthy). Gabriela Diaz again soloed on violin, and Terry Everson took on the extraordinarily brilliant and challenging trumpet part.

It was easy to see why Rose saved Moravec’s Brandenburg Gate (2008) close. It’s celebratory qualities suggest the same brilliance that Bach’s second concerto sustains throughout. The fast-slow-fast movements, entirely traditional for the genre, come from Moravec without breaks, readily achieving his goal (mentioned in the program note) of projecting a quality of “convivial energy.” Here, too, the B-A-C-H motto makes an appearance, but the runaway trumpet in the last movement gave the ending something of the joyous air of a circus, and brought listeners to their feet to greet the composer with rousing cheers.

When anticipating this program beforehand, I couldn’t help wondering if six “pseudo-Brandenburgs” in a row might prove too much. But as the performance went on, this concern vanished. If I had not known in advance the organizing feature of the program, though, I hardly could have divined it, not only because the six composers often used Bach’s scoring in an updated manner, but more especially because six different compositional personalities were applying their skills and imaginations in quite different ways. A fascinating evening, and another reminder—though surely none was needed—why Bach remains the teacher of us all.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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  1. Does anyone remember Noam Elkies’s “Brandenburg Concerto no. 7” as played by Metamophorsen Chamber Orch.?

    Comment by Martin Cohn — February 1, 2016 at 8:22 am

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