The substantial crowd at Sunday's Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle's Bach Family program suggested that local audiences may be a bit starved for live Baroque music despite the many and varied ensembles who call the area home. Conductor Lorenzo Muti put together a well performed and instructive program whose subtext was the fascinating ways members of families have of working out their individual destinies, as well as the uniqueness of continual drive for novelty characteristic of Western music.
The program was arranged as a palindrome, the first half offering sinfonie by Johann Christian Bach, the last of Johann Sebastian's sons (born 1735, not 1715 as was written in the program), and Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach, one of the oldest (born 1714), followed by the Concerto for Violin and Oboe by their father. The second half opened with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, followed by sinfonie by C.P.E. and finally J.C. respectively. Muti gave excellent commentary from the podium, pointing out the sharp contrasts between the music of the father and that of his two sons, each of whom responded to very different muses.
The two galant sinfonie (Op. 3, No. 4, in D Major, and Op. 18, No. 1, in E-flat Major) by J.C. Bach are, as Muti put it, "happy music," deliberately pleasing but superficial. The orchestra's performance of these two works was appropriately light. C.P.E., however, a proponent of the Empfindsamer Stil (sensitive style), composed some of the most deliberately quirky music in the canon. Muti added to the quirkiness of the two sinfonie (in E flat, Wq. 183, No. 2, and in D, Wq.183, No.1) by extending the fermatas over rests and pausing to turn the page between the slow and final movements, thereby creating a somewhat jerky performance. Without the attaca between these movements, one is left with a maddening hanging dominant chord. Surely conductor and players can manage faster page turns.
A testimonial to the quality of COT's musicians is that Muti could bring them out as perfectly respectable - if not world class - soloists. The Concerto for Violin and Oboe is a reconstruction of Bach's lost Concerto that he transcribed around 1736 for two harpsichords, S.1060. It is a problematic work, because of the impossibility of balancing the soloists without a sound engineer. Violinist Claudia Warburg and oboist Bo Newsome put in about as creditable a performance as possible under the circumstances, and Muti was clearly turning himself inside out to hold the orchestra to a whisper, but the oboe simply drowns out the violin, especially in the first movement during passages accompanied by the orchestra and where the violin plays much of the time in its lower register - imagine what it sounds like with the raucous Baroque oboe and Baroque violin with gut strings! We've never heard a live performance that works and have pretty much decided that it's Bach's fault. Although there is no definitive date of composition for the original version, it is most likely from Bach's early career as a court composer and it's telling that he never used that instrumental combination again.
More successful was the Fourth Brandenburg with flutists Allison Dimsdale and Jill Muti and violinist John Pruett. Dimsdale and Muti were very well balanced so that they sounded like a single instrument capable of playing more than one note simultaneously. Pruett, whose part is extremely difficult - on the order of the harpsichord cadenza in the Fifth Brandenburg - did a remarkable job of maintaining his intonation and rhythmic integrity through all the runs.
The enthusiastic crowd elicited an encore, the so-called "Air on the G String," the second movement of J.S. Bach's Orchestral Suite No.3, as molested by Leopold Stokowski.
Judging by the list of contributors in the program, the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle must be doing something right to make it one of the best-supported musical organizations in the area. Other organizations should take heed.