At the University of North Carolina's Hill Hall on Thursday, February 6, 2014, the Vivaldi Project gave a thrilling reading of six 17th- and 18th-century works in a concert entitled "C.P.E. Bach and His Dramatic Predecessors" as part of the Mallarmé Chamber Players' HIP Festival. With guest conductor John Hsu, the small orchestra of twelve musicians gave a convincing argument for the sinfonia and concerto grosso in baroque and early classical music without the "elephant in the room" – J.S. Bach. (I note, however, that Bach's stature as we regard him today is more a result of the 19th-century Bach revival than a continuous stream of Bach adulation dating from his own lifetime.)
Hsu, who taught and conducted at Cornell University for fifty years before retiring to the Research Triangle area, ably conducted a fine group of musicians. Violinist and ensemble co-founder Elizabeth Field said in her pre-concert introduction that this music was never intended to be for anything other than a live event, and Hsu certainly brought this event to life. Simon Rattle noted that conductors only begin to attain musical competence around age 60; if that's true, we can surely delight in Hsu's competence and musical maturity.
From the very opening of the Corelli Concerto Grosso in G Minor, Op.6, No. 8, the orchestra animated their gut strings and engaged and communicated with each other, anticipating the sundry tempo shifts with eye contact. In music that changes speed and mood more frequently than a Meat Loaf song, such communication is vital, and these musicians did so brilliantly. There were many fine musical moments at this concert; suspensions never sound as tangible as when they are played with baroque bows, and the slight ritardando before each final cadence was perfectly placed.
Especially noteworthy was the Pastorale finale of the Corelli Concerto Grosso; the pregnant pauses that ended the piece were ideal, bringing the perfect closure to his music. Hsu also brought a level of dynamic control to music in which loud and soft are often confusingly blurred. The first half of the program was also colored by a Handel Concerto Grosso in E minor, which features a delightful Polonaise dance for its third movement. Hsu, who conducted most of the concert seated, gave a dancing feel to each phrase of the music. His conducting frequently followed the phrase structure rather than a strict bar-by-bar meter; his cello and viol background becomes clear when he throws his arms to the ground to highlight a particularly drawn note.
Stephanie Vial showcased her baroque cello technique in the Vivaldi Concerto for Violoncello in G Major, RV 413. Her delicate solo passages and careful dynamic use brought out the baroque contrasts of Vivaldi's music, and her musical oppositions of the brisk sixteenth-note runs and the slower quarter-note figures would help to convince any Vivaldi naysayer of that composer's genius.
The highlight of the concert was its closing: two sinfonia by Bach's eldest sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. W.F. Bach's Sinfonia in F Major, F. 67, featured some odd plays between meter and modality in its opening, and the orchestra was clearly having fun. This music, written between 1735 and 1740, presented some interesting oddities, at least to ears shaped by modern classical musical vocabulary; one example was the continuously accented leading tone that appeared in the second movement. C.P.E. Bach's Sinfonia in B Minor is part of a set of commissions from Baron Gottfried van Swieten in the 1770s, composed without any restrictions from the Baron; this freedom comes through in the music, which, though written in the traditional Berlin string symphony style, has some wonderful surprises. The push and pull of the dynamics, along with the staggered entries in strange sequences, sounded bright and lively.
This concert had wonderful, weird music; some, like the Concerti Grossi, played into our normal baroque expectations. But pushing the line toward W.F. and C.P.E. Bach highlights the oddities of mid-18th-century music, and how different our musical expectations have become through centuries of being inundated with sonata form and Viennese harmony. This is music from an era when sinfonia did not mean "symphony," with its Mahlerian overtones, and sonata could indicate any of three different practices (church, chamber, or theatrical sonatas). The Vivaldi Project and the HIP Festival have helped to reinsert our sense of wonder and surprise at music that will never sound old.