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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Concert Review: A Voyage Around the Father

The St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble presents Circling Bach. 
by Paul Pelkonen.
The St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble.
Photo by Carol Cohen © 2012 Orchestra of St. Luke's.

On Saturday afternoon at the Brooklyn Museum, the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble presented Circling Bach, a program that was devoted to the composers that were influences upon, and later, influenced by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Today, Bach is thought of as the foundation of Western classical music. But the concept of him as musical progenitor is a 19th century one, rooted in the rediscovery of his works by Felix Mendelssohn and others. In truth, he was a human being, and a composer like any other, who produced a vast body of work under remarkable circumstances.

The first half of the concert was devoed to composers who may have influenced the development of Bach's style. It opened with three short works by Salomone Rossi, a Jewish composer in Renaissance Mantua. Rossi is almost forgotten today, but he was in the court of the Duke of Gonzaga (who helped found the first opera performances)and an associate of composer Claudio Monteverdi. 

More importantly, Rossi helped establish the of instrumental music where a treble part is written over bass harmonies--the very basis of modern homophony--or Western music. The pieces were played with galant style by the St. Luke's musicians, featuring unusual instruments like the cittern, a flat-backed, picked cousin of the mandolin.

The concert then moved to more familiar names. Antonio Vivaldi's influence on Bach was profound. Heard here: the A minor Cello Concerto. The solo part was taken with great energy by Myron Lutzke, whose low-toned playing was a fiery contrast with the tutti ensemble. A major work by Handel: the F Major Concerto Grosso  closed the first half, giving each of the skilled St. Luke's players a turn in the spotlight.

The second half was devoted to composers influenced by Bach. Fittingly, it started with his son Carl Philip Emanuel. C.P.E. Bach was feted in his lifetime as a better composer than his dad, but much of his work has faded from the repertory. The D minor Flute Concerto was transcribed for that instrument from an earlier work, for the royal lips of flute enthusiast Frederick the Great of Prussia. 

Elizabeth Mann may not be royalty, but she played this difficult concerto with grace and charm, hiding the tremendous technical requirements with experience and ability. Her playing in the slow movement was transportive, evoking the Potsdam court of Sans Souci. The fast movement that ends the piece was even more impressive.

The concert ended with another rarely heard name: Francesco Geminiani. Geminiani's work has sunk into obscurity, possibly because his career ended with a tenure in Dublin, Ireland, far from the heart of European musical life. Here, St. Luke's concertmaster Krista Bennion Feeney led a series of violin variations on La Follia, originally by composer Arcangelo Corelli. These variations crackled with robust energy, delivered with flair by the excellent players of the Chamber Ensemble.
Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.