The Eastern Music Festival Thursday night concert was given over to a single composer: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Although Bach was not particularly well-known during his lifetime, he has subsequently been recognized as one of the greatest composers of all Western classical music. To be sure, musicians during his life and after did know some of the keyboard works of the German master, especially his Well-Tempered Clavier, two books of 24 preludes and fugues, two of each written in the 12 major and 12 minor keys in the “newly-devised” tuning system (which is what we use today).

All five works on the program come from a time when Bach was employed by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, Germany; they were written for the court musicians there. Three of the five ended up being part of the six Brandenburg Concertos (his best-known orchestral works), which were presented to the Margrave of Brandenburg, ostensibly as a job application. All five of the works on the program are in three movements in a fast-slow-fast arrangement that Bach picked up from Italian composers.

The EMF ensemble for all but one of the offerings was comprised of 12 EMF string Orchestral Fellows with EMF Artist Faculty members sitting first-chair: John Fadial or Jenny Grégoire (trading off on first violin when the other was a soloist), Natalie Yu (second violin), Ben Geller (viola), Julian Schwarz (cello), Meredith Johnson (bass), and Harris Andersen (harpsichord).

The evening opened with the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, (sometimes called “the Bach Double”) which is scored for two violins and a string ensemble with continuo –cello/bass and harpsichord. The soloists were EMF Artist Faculty Avi Nagin and Fadial.

The work begins with the two soloists cavorting through animated motives, with the orchestra playing “second fiddle.” The large ensemble reinforces what the soloists are playing, but the ideas emanate from the duo. While it was clear that both Fadial and Nagin were equal partners, it seemed as though Nagin had the soprano line with Fadial taking the alto, although the two traded back and forth frequently. The different tone colors coming from the two instruments also helped identify who was playing what.

The gorgeous slow movement again employed a generous give and take between the two soloists. The finale featured flying fingers from soloists and ensemble. The ensemble kept eyes on the soloists, helping to maintain terrific cohesion.

Up next was Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D, BWV 1050, with Jake Fridkis (flute), Adelya Nartadjieva (violin), and Marika Bournaki (keyboard: in this piece, a modern piano) as soloists.

The opening theme, which reappears numerous times, is animated and was played by the entire group at a brisk tempo. The soloists are then spotlighted, with superb back-and-forth frolicking between Fridkis and Nartadjieva. The piano is in the back seat during these exchanges, serving mostly as accompaniment. But before the end, a solo part is ascribed to the keyboard – a lengthy cadenza. Bournaki used the resources a modern instrument offers – lots of pedal (typical of music from the 19th century), and she employed a great deal of speeding up and slowing down, another 19th century performance practice.

The second movement reveals a more even sharing of material between the three soloists, and again, intonation and ensemble were tight. The finale brings flute and violin to the fore, and the work ended with buoyant energy and terrific playing by everyone involved.

After intermission, Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G, BWV 1048, written for three violins, three violas, three cellos, and bass and harpsichord, was performed by members of the Artist Faculty (save one Fellow). Scholars have pointed out that Bach was extremely interested in numerology with a special place for the number three – divinity (reflecting the Christian Holy Trinity). This was another wonderful performance, with lively string playing.

Of particular interest is how each member of the ensemble is given solo lines, imitating each other in threes - nine independent lines. The second movement Adagio completely contrasts with the spirited opening. Although it contains only two chords, performers often use this movement to play in an improvised fashion, which is exactly what first chair violinist Randall Weiss did. He laid out delicate and intricate violin filigree before the two chords announced the final movement: a wild dance, played with unflagging vitality.

The Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV 1060 featured Grégoire and Randall Ellis respectively, engaging in an animated conversation between two equals, each with a distinct personality. Scalar lines from the ensemble and solo violin are often answered with a much shorter (and humorous?) oboe statement. The second slow movement is gorgeous and the long, sinuous lines were lovingly played by Grégoire and Ellis. The pizzicato accompaniment provided a striking backdrop. The finale is a joyous dance, with the entire ensemble contributing to the merry-making.

The evening closed with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G, BWV 1049, which is scored for strings and three soloists: Fadial (violin) with Ann Choomack and Fridkis on flutes. The violin part, especially, is incredibly virtuosic with rapid scales in the first movement and fiendish bowings in the third; Fadial executed the demanding score with fire and finesse. The two flutes are often paired together, and Choomack and Fridkis made terrific music partners. In the second movement, the flutes answer the larger ensemble, accompanied by the violin.

While Baroque music is generally not considered EMF’s forte, with most of its offerings hailing from the 19th, 20th, and now, 21st centuries, it was great to hear these Bach masterpieces played with such commitment and strength. It was an interesting blend of “historic” performance practices and 21st century sensibilities. A shout-out to Julian Schwarz: he provided the foundation of the continuo section, playing in every piece with a dedication to follow the leadings of the soloists as well as animating the ever-important drive from the bottom. Thanks to all who participated in this incredibly satisfying and often thrilling evening.