Early Music Review

Two-Thirds of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos on EMF's Friends and Great Performers Series

July 15, 2009 - Greensboro, NC:

The Eastern Music Festival has been expanding its performances outside its bucolic setting on the Guildford College Campus. The Steinway Piano Gala outing to Elon University has been long established, as have the professional Eastern Festival Orchestra's run-outs to Appalachian State University. The Friends and Great Performances series of downtown concerts have expanded this year with last week's organ recital and this week's superb performance of J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 3 through 6 in the spectacular cathedral-like space of the First Presbyterian Church in the heart of the historic Fischer Park district.

Harpsichordists Andrew Willis and Henry Lebedinsky were featured in the concertos, which were not played in numerical order. Although both UNC Greensboro-based Willis and Lebedinsky, organist and director of music at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Davidson, NC, are associated with the early music movement, this concert featured modern strings and flutes and everyone playing at standard (modern) pitch.

The depth of technical skill and the informed musicianship of the EMF faculty were on constant display as players featured in solo and supporting roles rotated from concerto to concerto. No conductor was used — there were nominal cues, generally given from the keyboard. These were superb, true chamber music performances with a wonderful sense of give-and-take as Bach constantly shifted primary and supporting roles in a fascinating interwoven tapestry in sound.

The concert opened with Bach's most "experimental" work of the set, the Concerto No. 6, S.1051. No woodwinds or violins were used. Instead, the lower-voiced strings, with their darker colors and weight — two violas, two cellos (originally three violas da gamba), and double bass — and the harpsichord were the prominent voices.  It was richly satisfying to hear first chair violists Daniel Reinker and Danielle Farina take solo and duo roles in turn. Their intonation and close matching of color and phrasing were superb. Beth Vanderborgh played the solo cello part with style, and it was delightful to hear cellists Marta Simidtchieva and Danielle Guideri take on the closely-matched duo that followed Vanderborgh's solo. Lebedinsky's keyboardplaying was fine.

Many commentators trace the "piano concerto" to what the author of the excellent program notes, William Trotter, describes as "the unprecedently long, toccata-like cadenza that dominates the second half of the first movement" of the Concerto No. 5 in D, S.1050. Willis played this harpsichord solo brilliantly, with an unswerving sense of line and dazzling flourishes. John Fadial, long-time concertmaster of the Greensboro Symphony, gave a vivid interpretation of the violin solo. Les Roettges' solo flute playing was outstanding in ever way, with gorgeous, warm tone and marvelous breath-control wedded to great elegance and refinement.

The performance of the Concerto No. 3 in G, S.1048, heard after intermission, was extraordinary. Courtney LeBauer played the prominent solo violin part with excellent style and virtuosity. Much more extraordinary than customary approach in the typical concert or recording was the option chosen for the "second" movement. Instead of a slow movement, Trotter's notes report, Bach's score has "the so-called 'Phrygian cadence,' a pair of unmistakably transitional chords most commonly used to signal" the transition from a slow movement into a lively finale but also "a perfect chance to insert improvisations." All live performances I have heard and many recordings have just the two chords, played by the keyboard, but on this occasion, LeBauer launched into a brilliantly-played solo, much like a movement from one of the great sonatas or partitas for solo violin. This was a striking break with tradition. Her playing was matched by her string colleagues and ably supported by Lebedinsky's harpsichord continuo.

LeBauer informed me that, having been given the chance to improvise, she "found two written-out cadenzas in her copy of the Bärenreiter part [with the names of the] composers not listed." After playing through both, she said, she disliked the first and felt the second needed a bit more. She "thought about writing (her) own, but due to lack of time," decided to take the written-out cadenza and, as she played it, improvised, to "baroque it up a bit." (A brief improvisation by the harpsichordist, if any, is more common.)This was a refreshing change of pace.

The concert ended with an infectious and lively performance of the Concerto No. 4, in G, S.1049. As they had been throughout the concert, the tempos were ideal. The wonderfully carefree and open-air quality of the work was fully realized. The sparkling violin and flute solos were played with great panache by Jessica Guideri and Les Roettges, respectively. All these accomplished musicians well deserved the prolonged, spontaneous standing ovation from the large and enthusiastic audience.