Sunday, February 28, 2010

Music review: From Firebird, a peerless night of Bach

Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg (1677-1734),
dedicatee of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.

By Greg Stepanich

On the one hand, it's no mystery why the Brandenburg Concertos of J.S. Bach should be so rarely played in local concerts.

Engaging as they are, canonical and popular as they unquestionably are, they are also very difficult. And in some ways, that only deepens the mystery: If you're an ambitious instrumental musician or conductor, why not spend some time learning or programming this music?

Whatever the reason, area audiences are indeed fortunate in the fact of the Firebird Chamber Orchestra, the instrumental ensemble wing of the Seraphic Fire choral organization. This weekend, the Miami-based group launched a three-year project that will see it traverse the entire six-concerto Brandenburg cycle, and the results so far are nothing short of magnificent.

On Saturday night at All Saints Episcopal in Fort Lauderdale, Patrick Dupré Quigley led the Firebird in all-Bach evening of the Brandenburg Nos. 3 and 5, as well as the Orchestral Suite No. 2 and the Cantata No. 84, Ich bin vergnügnt mit meinem Glücke. It was a wonderful 75 minutes of peerless music, peerlessly played and sung, and a real tonic for the average concertgoer, who can hear plenty of smaller Bach works most seasons but so rarely gets to hear these larger pieces.

For Brandenburg No. 3, Quigley had a 10-person ensemble, with his violins and violas standing up, and that might as well have been an announcement to everyone that this was going to be about energy and engagement. This familiar music was beautifully and expertly performed, with a marvelous lightness and vigor that imbued every bar and that surely spoke of the fun the musicians were having performing it.

The first movement of the concerto was taken at a good, brisk tempo, there were strong, dancelike accents as the music chugged forward, and in addition to the near-faultless accuracy, there were deft dynamic touches such as a diminuendo on the main theme of the first movement as it headed for the last part of its downward scale. Harpsichordist Kola Owolabi ad-libbed an appropriate eight bars or so for the missing slow movement, and the closing movement then raced along at a terrific clip, with an absolutely palpable sense of joy in music-making.

All of the instruments could be clearly heard, which helped the audience appreciate the skill of each player. Concertmaster Adda Kridler stood out here, with a kinetic, dazzling performance of her part, which at times approaches a solo violin concerto.

The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto was no less brilliant, with Owolabi, Kridler and flutist Ebonee Thomas making stellar contributions. Thomas has a large, polished sound with a true singing quality, and Kridler's dark tone is married to a laudable precision that adds a definitive feel to everything she plays. Owolabi handled the whirling, spinning, bravura solo part of the first movement most capably, with a couple tiny gaps that sounded as though they were caused by the harpsichord's mechanism.

The three played the trio sonata second movement with a lovely seriousness that further showcased their individual excellence, and in the final movement, the tempo again was swift, and the feeling athletic, even amid music of quite a different character than the close of the Third Concerto. Both Brandenburgs were played with the kind of youthfulness and power that perfectly suited concertos written to impress and entertain, and if this kind of performance is what we can expect from the future Firebird Brandenburgs, the next two installments will be required concertgoing for South Florida classical fans.

Soprano Kathryn Mueller.

The other two Bach pieces on the program were equally accomplished. The Cantata No. 84 featured the soprano Kathryn Mueller singing a text of simple thanks (its title translates as I am content in my good fortune). Mueller has a full, strong voice that was able to handle the leaps of both the cantata's arias -- the title aria spans a tenth in a very short time -- with smooth shifting from low to high. She sings with fine diction and sonic purity, characteristics even more in evidence in the second aria, Ich esse mit Freuden mein weniges Brot (I eat my humble bread with joy).

Because the final chorale had to be sung as a solo, it added still further to the overall feeling of piety and simplicity. Oboist Rick Bashore was the fine instrumental soloist who joined the Firebird for the cantata, contributing a nice round sound that blended well with Mueller's voice.

Flutist Ebonee Thomas.

The concert closed with the Orchestral Suite No. 2 (in B minor, BWV 1067), featuring flutist Thomas. This performance had a broader approach, with slower tempos and fully fleshed melodies, even though it began with a rather quick pace for the Overture. Thomas played excellently throughout, and of course was the star of the show during the final Badinerie, which blazed along like a speed trial.

To hear this great music played so well, and so freshly and energetically, was an unalloyed delight, and long overdue for area audiences. It reminded me of the orchestral player interviewed at the end of John Eliot Gardiner's Bach cantata pilgrimage of 1999, who said she and the other players were wondering why they just couldn't keep on going, just keep playing Bach day after day.

Here's hoping one day the Firebird and Seraphic Fire join forces for a local version of the Bach cantata pilgrimage. Saturday night's performance showed they could do it, and that would be a gift for South Florida classical music like no other.

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