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The Bach Way


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at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall

September 18

One of the main problems that has plagued the City Music, Chicago's 18th-century period-instrument orchestra, has been finding a hall where the subtleties of the group can be clearly heard. But solving that problem, at least for the new Evanston series at the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, created a new problem--the need to sell nearly twice the number of tickets that had to be sold last season. No doubt creative marketing strategies need to be thought out and used, and no doubt the City Musick will, as usual, rise to the formidable challenge. For the moment, however, it is sad to see the group presenting an innovative all-Bach program to a concert hall that's less than half full.

Still, what a pleasure it was to be able to hear exactly what the group was trying to do--something that was all but impossible in, for instance, an acoustic monstrosity like Old Saint Patrick's Church, where many of last year's concerts were played. Sunday's all-Bach program confirmed many impressions of past performances, but the better acoustics made those impressions deeper. Moreover, this program was far more innovative and exciting than the usual early-music programs we are used to hearing here.

The concert began with the Brandenburg Concerto no. 6, with Elaine Scott Banks appearing as cellist with a tiny ensemble of baroque strings, viola da gamba, and harpsichord continuo. Banks led from the cello, a rather awkward division of her responsibilities, which unfortunately seemed to lend itself to a rather slow and often disjointed performance. I also had the distinct impression that the ensemble would have liked a faster tempo, but playing the many 16th notes in rhythm, a challenge for any ensemble that tackles this technically demanding work, made that difficult.

As a section, the string players have improved enormously in their ability to stay together and to stay consistently in pitch. The sound of the strings was genuinely beautiful, and there were few intonation problems. This is an amazing achievement in any period-instrument ensemble, let alone one that is only beginning its fourth season.

Balance, however, is still a problem for the group, a problem that seems especially pronounced in a chamber performance such as a Brandenburg. The two violinists, who performed with considerable virtuosity, constantly overpowered the rest of the group. Banks's cello playing, especially in solo passages, was barely audible within the ensemble's overall texture and seemed to have a rather buzzy timbre to it when it could be heard--perhaps because she was directing and playing at the same time, This is an "authentic" practice in the sense that music was performed in this manner in Bach's day (although Bach led from the viola). But players are not used to this today, and only a rare musician can pull it off; it has to be something that one does all the time. True, there was no such thing as a "stand-up" conductor in Bach's day, but the final result should take priority--even over authenticity. Even if many of her mannerisms and wide gestures belong to the 19th century, Banks's performances are better served when she is a stand-up conductor; as such, she is able to communicate proper baroque phrasing and a wonderfully refreshing and exciting approach that is thoroughly musical. Although dynamic contrast is generally a Banks characteristic, the repeated sections in the Brandenburg performance had little if any. Had Banks been conducting instead of playing, this would not have been the case.

Faring far better was the Bach Trauer Ode, BWV 198, a rarely heard gem that Bach used as the basis for the now lost Saint Mark Passion. Banks was back on the podium, and I found most of her musical ideas about the piece quite convincing, though this work was also performed too slowly--presumably because it is a funeral cantata and therefore should, in accordance with a later, 19th-century aesthetic, be somber and slow.

Most of the instrumental playing in the piece was of the highest caliber, and the winds, which have been a real ear sore in some past City Musick performances, had an especially beautiful, dark timbre re to them. Unfortunately, the strings needed to hold back much more than they did for the proper wind-string balance that is so essential to the period-instrument aesthetic.

One concession that Banks makes in performing Bach that does detract from the overall aesthetic is the use of female sopranos instead of boy sopranos. But boy sopranos are rather hard to come by in this country, especially those with enough artistry to perform Bach, and when we are treated to a sound as beautiful as the voice of Julianne Baird, the concession seems minimal. Baird is one of the top--indeed, many would say the top--early-music sopranos in the world today. Her vocal technique is flawless, her vocal color beautiful, her enunciation always crystal clear.

New York countertenor Christopher Trueblood certainly demonstrated a formidable technique, but unfortunately had a very strained sound to his voice. Mark Bleeke, a tenor with a 19th-century operatic technique, sounded very out of place in this quartet, and baritone Andrew Schultze was in good voice but tended to overpower the other singers. All the soloists, save Baird, tended to sing in a legato style, even when the text didn't call for it.

The two sections of the Trauer Ode were divided by the intermission, which broke the performance rather nicely and helped maintain maximum audience interest. In Bach's day, similar breaks were used for long sermons--in this case, a long eulogy for the Queen of Poland.

The Missa brevis in F Major concluded the concert, with the four soloists becoming part of the choir and taking solo lines. The choir was very effective and quite clear, even during sections of elaborate counterpoint. One of the four "Lutheran" masses of Bach, this work is actually a compilation of movements from other cantatas that have been put into a delightful kyrie and Gloria. It is a triumphant work and was a fitting close to the evening. Banks seems to be at her very best in works that combine chorus and orchestra, and this work, performed with a bouncy exuberance and energy, was the highlight of the evening.

All in all the move of the City Musick from church to concert hall should be considered a great success, although it really needs to be seen as a point of departure rather than arrival. In spite of some problems, the concert was very rewarding, and I hope the orchestra continues to grow at the speed that it has in its first three seasons.

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