Sunday, January 20, 2008

Winter Pass 2

Last night I used my St. Louis Symphony Orchestra "Winter Pass" a second time, for another "Bach and Friends" performance featuring guest conductor Nic McGegan. This time the Brandenburg Concertos were Nos. 3 and 6, and the other composers on the programme - whose concertos for double string orchestra were modeled on Bach - were Czech emigre Bohuslav Martinů and longlived Brit Sir Michael Tippett.

At the top of the concert, Brandenburg 3 held the stage in an unusual (for a symphony orchestra) performance of a work that straddles the line between orchestral and chamber music. Only eleven musicians were in play: three violins, three violas, three cellos, a double-bass, and McGegan conducting from the harpsichord. He brilliantly improvised the brief slow movement for which Bach notated only two chords. In spite of the thin forces, the piece was a feast for the eyes and ears, with an intricate texture that is best appreciated by a live audience.

Martinů's Double Concerto for Strings, Piano, and Timpani (written in 1938) was a revelation: a little-known masterpiece of the 20th century, written during dark days for the composer's homeland, it was well described in McGegan's pre-concert lecture as "angry city music" that could effectively accompany a documentary on the desolation caused by war. The concerto's movingly elegiac slow movement is framed by two energetic, serious movements full of angular rhythms and thick, forceful harmonies. Peter Henderson acquitted himself magnificently in a challenging piano part often buried in the texture, rather like a source of orchestral color than a solo part, except for two tremendous solo passages in the central movement.

Brandeburg 6 led off the second half of the concert with the smallest ensemble yet: two violas, three cellos, and a double-bass, with McGegan again conducting from the keyboard. Seven musicians on stage! And two of the cellists sat out the slow movement. These last couple of weeks, the spotlight has really been on finely-controlled balance, and on the large number of capable soloists within the SLSO.

The concert finally achieved what it had been threatening all along, and ended with a demonstration of pure string sound. Michael Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938-39) shows the strings in every conceivable texture and combination, from two full-sized string sections playing back and forth in stereo, to ten rhythmically active sections conversing in scintillating counterpoint. The piece is a feast for the ears and mind, both radiantly beautiful and exquisitely complex; its central movement is particularly lyrical. I shall have to look into Tippett's work a bit more.

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