Joyce Yang

Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra

The Brandenburg Concertos languished all but unknown for 129 years after Bach assembled them to submit as part of an unsuccessful job application to the German margrave whose name would eventually become attached to them. They weren’t published until 1850, when a musicologist named Siegfried Wilhelm Dehn prepared an edition to coincide with the centennial of the composer’s death. He recounted in a letter: “At present, I am concerned only with the J.S. Bach concertos; I have discovered several of them which — mirabile dictu! — are entirely unknown; among others are 6 (I repeat, six) Concerti grossi, and the rarities include the autographs of … a concerto for 2 violas and 2 viole da gamba with violone and cembalo, a concerto for violino piccolo (I have the proofs in front of me now), a concerto for 3 violins, 3 violas and 3 violoncelli etc. etc.” Even when this and other editions became available, the six concertos found few champions in the concert hall, their curious instrumental combinations presenting a challenge to practicality. They didn’t begin to gain much of a following until well into the gramophone era; the first recording of the complete group of six appeared only in 1929, on the Brunswick label, with Walter Gieseking serving as the solo pianist in the Fifth Concerto.

Even then, one could scarcely have imagined that the Brandenburgs would become as ultra-popular as they have. During the past decade or two, they have even staked a place as a “holiday tradition,” being performed as a matter of course during the December crush of concert cheer — and that seems to have hardly cannibalized the frequency with which they are programmed at other points in the calendar.

Hereabouts, the “Holiday Brandenburgs” slot is assumed annually by the Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra (conducted by Thomas O’Connor), which augments its normal roster by bringing in colleagues to fill some of the solo roles. This year’s rendition, which I heard on Dec. 29 at St. Francis Auditorium, offered abundant pleasures without revealing anything unexpected in the works’ pages. The concertos were presented out of the usual order: Concertos Nos. 3, 4, and 1 before intermission, Concertos Nos. 6, 5, and 2 after. It was a laudable idea to spotlight different violinists of diverse musical character in the four concertos that placed that instrument to the fore. In the first movement of the Fourth Concerto, David Felberg dispatched his torrents of 32nd-notes cleanly, but the context that surrounded that famous passage didn’t provide much of a dramatic setup; I prefer it when that moment suggests a racehorse bursting out of an already straining starting-gate. Concerto No. 1 was approached with a good deal of bluster. Here the featured violinist was Elizabeth Baker, who brought lusty vigor to her solo passages, though playing on a normal violin rather than the violino piccolo, the obscure instrument that made Dehn so excited.

The Sixth Concerto was not marked by complete unanimity, and its second movement — arguably the most beauteous expanse in the whole set — fell short of magic. The hero of the Fifth Concerto was harpsichordist David Solem, who pulled the rabbit out of the hat through his secure performance of the very challenging keyboard part, opting for the longer of Bach’s two cadenzas in the first movement, no less. He also played continuo in all the other concertos, which meant his featured role in the Fifth Concerto was equivalent to a 20-minute sprint at the 5/6 point of a marathon. He was nicely matched by his co-soloists, violinist Stephen Redfield, who played with the poised reserve that is his hallmark, and flutist Carol Redman, who brought rhythmic point and a rich tone to the task. The concerto’s second movement seemed a notch fast and not quite as heartfelt as one might wish, given the capabilities of the solo group; that expanse, after all, shows Bach inclining in the direction of the empfindsamer Stil, the overtly expressive “sensitive style” that would later be championed by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. The concert concluded with the Second Brandenburg, the most glittering of the set thanks to its stratospheric trumpet solos, which Brian Shaw negotiated with aplomb. His fellow soloists were Redman, oboist Kevin Vigneau, and violinist Kerri Lay, who delivered her part with dignified sweetness.

Performance Santa Fe Orchestra

On New Year’s Eve, Joseph Illick led his Performance Santa Fe Orchestra in two masterworks at the Lensic Performing Arts Center: Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and Schumann’s Piano Concerto, with Joyce Yang appearing as the soloist. The brief program note about the Schumann referenced Liszt’s description of the piece as “a concerto without piano.” I have never succeeded in divining the authenticity of this remark and am therefore unable to interpret it against the context in which it was expressed — if it ever was expressed — but I imagine it was supposed to refer to the orchestra’s unusually rich contribution to the piece, which might make the piano seem less consequential than it would in more dazzling concertos. In the event, Yang’s interpretation supported this observation. At heart, the work is not ostentatious in its technical demands or its extroverted effect, and for the most part Yang seemed temperamentally suited to play as part of the team. The piano part emerged with less crispness than it might in other hands, and her reading was far from note-perfect, even including a major derailing in the home stretch of the finale. This was in some senses an alternative take on the Schumann Concerto. The second movement adhered to a very restrained tempo; Yang played her opening music as if she was making her way on exaggerated tiptoe — which was an effective preparation for the spacious cello melody that ensued. Throughout the concerto she infused her rather introspective reading with warm tone and elegantly considered rubato.

It may not have been a typical rendition of Schumann’s Piano Concerto, but its musical points were interesting to consider. For much of the time it was going on, I couldn’t think of another composer I would rather be hearing on New Year’s Eve. At its best, Schumann’s music is filled with warmth and wit, with facetiousness and sincerity, with regret and hope. It sums up the human condition. One’s relationship to the musical masters shifts over time, and I find that Schumann grows more essential with each passing year. ◀

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