January 3, 2018

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Returns to Princeton in Fine Form

By Nancy Plum

The holiday season means many things in Princeton — a brightly-decorated tree in Palmer Square, busy post office lines, and in musical terms, the annual performance of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Presented by McCarter Theatre, this performance in Richardson Auditorium has always given audiences a respite from breakneck December activities, and this year was no exception. Last Monday night, 21 instrumentalists joined together in a variety of combinations to perform Bach’s six concertos which are considered the epitome of the Baroque form. Each concerto featured a different blend of soloists, and the members of the Chamber Music Society demonstrated both solid ensemble and refined solo playing. 

Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (BWV 1046-1051) were a collection of six instrumental works presented by Bach to the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, whom Bach hoped would assist him with securing a new position. Likely unheard by their intended recipient, the concertos achieved audience recognition during the 19th-century revival of Bach’s music, and remain to this today not only crowd favorites but also a tremendous challenge to instrumentalists.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented these six three-movement works in an unusual order, with keys somewhat related from concerto to concerto and with the size of the ensemble gradually increasing onstage as the evening progressed. Concerto No. 5 in D Major features flute, violin, and harpsichord soloists, and especially in case of the harpsichord, the audience could hear the best of the instrument from the outset. Violinist Cho-Liang Lin, flutist Robert Langevin, and harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss led an accompanying string quartet in a very quick and lean interpretation of what may be the most popular of concerto of the six.

Langevin played with a mellow flute tone and Lin, playing a 1715 Stradivarius instrument, provided sensitive melodic lines and graceful phrasing together with the flute. Kenneth Weiss, one of two players to perform in all six concertos, showed fluid keyboard work and particularly flowing running notes, especially in an extended cadenza at the end of the first movement.

Concerto No. 6 in B-flat Major was unusual in its scoring for two violas, three celli, double bass, and harpsichord. Originally composed for viola da gambas, this concerto’s scoring for lower strings created a rich sound, and the audience could enjoy instruments not usually at the forefront in orchestral music. Violist Yura Lee took the lead, joined by fellow violist Richard O’Neill, who both emphasized dynamic contrasts amid quick tempi.

Another audience favorite is Concerto No. 2 in F Major, featuring trumpet, flute, oboe, and violin soloists. Playing a piccolo trumpet, soloist Brandon Ridenour played subtly when combined with the other instrumentalists and then soared in the third movement’s virtuosic solo lines, considered some of the most difficult in the trumpet repertory. Oboist Randall Ellis played expressively, no matter how short the phrase, joined by flutist Carol Wincenc and violinist Danbi Um, and the trademark Baroque ornaments were clean from all instruments.

Scored for all strings, Concerto No. 3 in G Major was led by violinist Daniel Phillips, over a solid foundation of three violas, three celli, double bass, and harpsichord. As the only double bass player, Joseph Conyers was part of all six concertos, consistently in perfect time with harpsichordist Weiss and cellists Efe Baltacigil, Nicholas Canellakis, and Colin Carr to provide solid continuo accompaniment. The ten string players and harpsichordist who performed Concerto No. 3 exhibited especially uniform rallantados and cadences leading to the recurring orchestral refrain.

The Chamber Music Society players achieved an especially dark and rich sound in Concerto No. 1 in F Major, the first concerto in the series, but the last performed on Monday night. Scored for strings with two horns and three oboes, this concerto featured a darker wind and brass sound accompanying Daniel Phillips’ violin solos, with hunting call effects recalling Bach’s “Hunting Cantata,” from which this concerto is derived. Hornists Jennifer Montone and Julie Landsman demonstrated clean and well-tuned thirds throughout the concerto, answered by a trio of oboists. Oboist Stephen Taylor played an elegant lament in the second movement Adagio, leading to the joyous set of dances which closed the set of concertos and the performance.

Last Monday night’s concert may have been during one of the busiest weeks of the year, but the success of Chamber Music Society’s performance proved that there is always room for Bach in a hectic schedule.