John Frayne: Visitors from Cleveland, Sinfonia give spirited performances
Apollo's Fire, the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra, visited Oct. 30 and offered a brilliantly played program of five of the six Brandenburg Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
Jeannette Sorrell, music director of the group and also harpsichord player, explained via microphone that Bach had presented the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721 with a manuscript of these Baroque concertos, but the Margrave never had them played, and never thanked Bach. In sharp contrast, the classical music world has been playing them continuously since the Baroque revival started. Only Antonio Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" challenges these pieces for the top of the Baroque charts.
Apollo's Fire plays on authentic Baroque instruments and uses smaller ensembles than one might have encountered in performances in the past decades. Watching small groups playing these masterpieces of contrapuntal writing keeps one alert to the individual lines of Bach's interwoven textures.
In Concerto No. 6, the two violists, Karina Schmid and Kristen Linfante, were outstanding soloists as they matched phrases with the other players and each other.
The most brilliant effects in Baroque music usually come from the trumpet, and in the Concerto No. 2, Joel Cohen gave a masterful display of virtuosity on his odd-looking instrument in the opening and ending movements. Concertmaster Oliver Brant played the violin solos here and in other concertos with bravura.
Sorrell had her star turn in Concerto No. 5 with a mammoth harpsichord cadenza in the first movement. After her thrilling display of keyboard dexterity, spontaneous rounds of applause broke out. I confess that except when played as solo, the sound of the harpsichord in Foellinger disappears for me in the ensemble mix. In the fifth concerto, Kathie Steward played well the solos for the transverso flute, an instrument with a soft, hollow sound. In Concerto No. 4, Francis Colpron's and Kathie Stewarts' fine playing of recorders contributed to that special Baroque tonal flavor.
Of the six concertos, all were played, except No. 1. At the program's end, after strong applause, an encore was announced, "Glory in the Meeting House," an American folk tune, in which all the members of the ensemble joined in the old-time fiddling. This brought a roar of applause from the audience, at a level of approval that dwarfed our responses to the Bach concertos. This gives one pause.
On Saturday night, Ian Hobson led the Sinfonia da Camera in its first concert of the season. The program opened with one of Johannes Brahms' least performed orchestral works, his Serenade No. 2, composed in 1859.
This piece, along with the Serenade No. 1, served as Brahms' trial balloons in orchestral writing before his First Symphony belatedly appeared in 1876. Serenade No. 2 has no violins, so the violas, cellos, and basses contribute to the rather dark tonal palette in this composition. The middle movement of this work seems to me one of Brahms' less-inspired orchestral segments, but, on the positive side, the fifth movement finale opens with a sprightly theme that Brahms plays with up to a rousing finale. Oboist John Dee and clarinetist J. David Harris took solo bows for their fine work.
The second work on the program was Francis Poulenc's "Aubade: Choreographic Concerto for Piano and 18 Instruments." Originally intended as a score for a ballet about the goddess Diana, this work is now solely a concert hall work, albeit a rare one.
Hobson, conducting from the piano, played with suitable virtuosity the grandiose declamatory sections as well as the more light-hearted flashy sections. The eight short movements of this piece offer a variety of moods but they also left me with a somewhat scattered impression. But Poulenc's puckish parodies and ironic strokes saved the day.
Richard Strauss' suite from his Incidental Music for Moliere's famous play "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme" ("The Would-Be Gentleman") was for me the most successful offering of the evening. Led with nuanced precision by Hobson, Strauss' masterful and witty orchestration drew first rate playing from the Sinfonia ensemble, which included an impressive array of percussion players. The violin solos were brilliantly played by the Sinfonia's new concertmaster, Stefan Milenkovich, and the cello solo in the final "Dinner" section was sympathetically played by cello principal Amy Catron Flores. They received solo bows as well as other principal players of the Sinfonia. Strauss' musical send-up of Moliere's clueless hero had echoes for me of his portrayal of Baron Ochs in his masterpiece "Der Rosenkavalier."
The next Sinfonia concert is an ambitious one. On Nov. 21, the ensemble will be joined by soloists and many choristers in Giuseppe Verdi's mighty "Requiem," a performance in commemoration of the great opera composer's 200th birth year.
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.