The program title “Diversity of Beauty” hinted at the clean, bright beauties pulled from The Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey’s core repertoire of Baroque, classical and Romantic chestnuts.
But the concert, which took place at The Morristown Unitarian Fellowship on Jan. 21, achieved something else. Beneath the charming veneer, maestro Robert W. Butts took a minimalist approach that condensed the musical and dramatic elements to the bare essentials and brought out the emotional essence of each work. There was a vitality and directness to their musical expression that spoke to the individual strengths of the musicians. The stylistic approach was low on frills and fussiness. Moments of virtuosic flair were present but fleeting.
The first half of the program was dedicated to delicate, alluring pieces by composers Antonio Vivaldi, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Johann Sebastian Bach. Despite their beautiful simplicity, the works are deceptively difficult to play, requiring intense finger work and impeccable technical command from the strings.
The ensemble’s orchestral palette of 16 mixed strings (with four woodwinds added to the second half of the program) was not wide, but projection and penetration was full. The overall timbre sat relatively low and deep, which made for an unexpected dark, broody expression on sparkling, effervescent repertoire that usually calls for the bright, sweet and high colors of the lighter strings. The impression was soulful.
Butts announced that, due to illness, some musicians had cancelled, and revisions were made to the program. “Welcome to winter,” he apologized wryly, to the full house.
The first half carried an impromptu feel that Baroque music can sometimes inspire. Vivaldi’s Concerto in D minor for strings RV 127 was loosely knit with long and leisurely phrases in the middle largo. Tight bowings in the final allegro made for searching, wandering passages.
Coleridge-Taylor’s Novelletten, Op. 52 dipped into romance. The set of four short movements for string orchestra from the early 20th century are thought to be inspired by Robert Schumann’s set of solo piano miniatures of the same name from 1838.
The third movement, andante con moto, was one of the selections cut from the program. It features a virtuosic violin solo that captures Coleridge-Taylor’s affection for strings. The gifted violinist attended Royal College of Music for composition at the same time as Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
The first two movements unfolded with cautious tempi but still managed to capture the dancerly rhythms and colorful characteristics of the work. The allegro molto finale was fitted with muscular dynamics and ferocious bowings that gave an experimental, modernistic appeal. Larger strings added creamy textures to the mix.
Bach’s crowd-pleasing and inventive Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major provided glimpses of the beauty referenced in the program title. The work is one of six instrumental concerti written by Bach and presented to royalty of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721.
Bach wrote them in the concerto grosso style, which features soloists grouped in combinations (as opposed to a single soloist playing against the orchestra), with this one scored for three violins, three violas and three cello soloists. It opens ravishingly with the grouped soloists, but the positioning of the solos changes frequently and independently, weaving in and out of the entire ensemble.
Usually the middle adagio movements of these concerti grossi are stately and slow, but in this one, a single measure of two chords acts as a musical coda. Modern performances approach it in various ways. Sometimes the chords are followed by an improvised cadenza from either a violin or harpsichord; sometimes short movements from other works are inserted; and sometimes, like at this concert, they are treated exactly as written.
The outer allegro movements, including the ritornellos, were taken at a confident clip. Virtuosic moments appeared here and there but the focus was on the melodic and harmonic lines, which came easy under the leadership of Alyson Whelan in the concertmaster chair.
Mozart was still a teenager when he wrote Symphony No. 27 in G major from 1773. It is short and sweet, and wrapped in the breezy Italianate style.
Demanding passages of the allegro were played more pensive than delicate, though flute and bassoon duos shed some buoyancy and light. The andantino grazioso brought out some refined shading and clean octave work from the cellos. The violins and violas explored the complexity of the final presto’s motif, ending with a soft coda.
Mezzo-soprano Teresa Giardina sang the program’s two opera selections by Henry Purcell and Christoph Willibald Gluck, both of which are beloved Early Music mainstays that have crossed over into the operatic mainstream with transpositions up and down the vocal tessitura.
“Dido’s Lament (When I am laid in earth)” from Purcell’s 1689 chamber opera “Dido and Aeneas” is an aria of great emotional depth, melancholy and beauty. It is sung by Dido, Queen of Carthage, dying of grief as Aeneas sails off to Rome.
“Che farò senza Euridice” is Orfeo’s iconic aria from Gluck’s 1762 “Orfeo ed Euridice.” Grief-stricken Orfeo wonders how he will live without his dead wife Euridice, after causing her death along their journey from the underworld.
Giardina sang both arias naturalistically, with somber poise, leaving aside Baroque articulations and word painting. Her sweet, glacé mezzo layered nicely against the ensemble’s darker overtones.
For more about The Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey, visit baroqueorchestra.org.
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