December 22, 2021

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Returns to Princeton with Program of Bach

By Nancy Plum

The musical world may still be celebrating the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, but no composer has stood the test of time better than Johann Sebastian Bach. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has traditionally proven this almost every year in Princeton by presenting a concert of Bach’s joyous 1720 Brandenburg Concertos. The 20-member Chamber Music Society returned to McCarter Theatre Center last week to perform these complex, well-crafted yet accessible works. Thursday night’s performance in McCarter’s Matthews Theatre both dazzled the audience with the players’ technical abilities and created a festive musical mood suitable for the holiday season.  

Bach elevated the Baroque concerto form to new heights with the six works for solo instruments and orchestra compiled and dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg. Each concerto featured a different combination of instruments, and the Chamber Music Society was able to augment the variety by showcasing different musicians in each work. The ensemble grouped Bach’s concertos by orchestration, with the rich instrumental palette of Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major opening the program. Violinist Daniel Phillips effectively led the ensemble in quick tempi in the opening and closing movements, with oboist Stephen Taylor and bassoonist Marc Goldberg leading the dialogs between the winds and strings. The pair of oboes were well matched in the second movement “adagio,” with the closing dance movements showing graceful dynamic swells among the instruments and especially adroit playing from violinist Arnaud Sussman.

Consistent throughout the six three-movement pieces was a “continuo” ensemble of cello, double bass, and harpsichord. The three cellists of the Chamber Music Society rotated through the concertos, but double bass player Joseph Conyers and harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss unfailingly provided a solid foundation to all six works. Weiss had the opportunity to show the capabilities of the harpsichord in Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, in which the harpsichord doubles as continuo and soloist. The Chamber Music Society began this concerto in a fast and light tempo, with the orchestral color augmented by the addition of flutist Ransom Wilson. Although the harpsichord was hard to hear at times when with the rest of the ensemble, Weiss’ fast runs and nimble playing were clear when the instrument was on its own, especially in the first movement cadenza. Wilson provided a subtle icing to the instrumental sound, maintaining a delicate dialog and precise dynamic swells with violinist Sean Lee.

Bach used brass infrequently in these concertos, but one of the most popular of the six is No. 2 in F Major, featuring a piccolo trumpet as soloist, as well as baroque oboe, flute, and violin. Trumpeter David Washburn kept the trumpet part crisp and light in the outer movements of this work and was effectively paired with baroque oboe player James Austin Smith. Arnaud Sussmann was lead violinist and led the ensemble particularly well in the long melodic lines of the second movement “andante.”  In addition to clean playing among the soloists, the third movement featured an elegant duet between trumpeter Washburn and cellist Timothy Eddy.  

Bach’s most unusual orchestration in this set of instrumental works could be heard in Concerto No. 3 in G Major, which was scored for trios of violins, violas, and cellos. Led by violinist Sean Lee, the musicians passed motives among the groups of instruments, and the players demonstrated why the evening’s performance was one of precision. The third movement “allegro” was particularly spirited, with all musicians having the chance to execute quick thematic material.  

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center ended the concert not with the final concerto as Bach compiled the set, but with the fourth concerto of the series, with the high-range instruments of two flutes and one violin as soloists. The smallest ensemble of the evening, the three soloists and six accompanying strings and harpsichord created a seamless instrumental palette in Concerto No. 4 in G Major. Thirds were flawless between the two flutes, with solo violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky blending perfectly into the wind timbre. The music of Bach’s era was often built on sequences and repetition, but the musicians of the Chamber Music Society were able to find musical expression within all the challenging technical requirements.  

Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos may have been a compositional résumé to the court of Margrave, but the virtuosity and joyous character of these “Six concerts avec plusieurs instruments,” as Bach originally called them, have endeared these works to audiences for three hundred years. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s welcome return to McCarter Theatre further solidified the concertos as a sign of the holiday season in Princeton.