By David Weininger, Globe Correspondent | September 20, 2008
John Harbison and Emmanuel Music presented the Brandenburg Concertos in reverse order Thursday.
Emmanuel Music's 2008-09 season is the last to have been planned by its late founder, Craig Smith, and is dedicated to his memory. Smith was not a man to do things halfway; comprehensiveness was his mantra. So it comes as little surprise that he would have programmed all six of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos for Thursday's opening-night concert.
This might sound like a tired idea for a season opener until you realize that the Brandenburgs, once a staple of concert life and radio programming, have gone mostly AWOL over the last several years. They're now more likely to be encountered while on hold than in a concert hall. Far from a retread, then, Thursday's concert had the feel of a welcome rediscovery of these pieces, each of which is written for a distinct - and sometimes distinctly unusual - configuration of instruments.
The concertos were played in reverse order, for musical reasons: The number of players decreases as you go from the First to the Sixth. So the concert sequence had the effect of adding players to the altar of Emmanuel Church, as if a community dedicated to Bach's vision was gradually forming.
There were a few surprises. The Second Concerto, one of whose solos is usually played by a trumpet, offered a horn instead. The Fifth Concerto's keyboard solo was played by associate conductor Michael Beattie on a modern piano, whereas in the other works a harpsichord was used for the continuo part. Only the First required a conductor; John Harbison filled the role more than ably.
The performances met the high standard in Bach's music that audiences have come to expect from this group. Emmanuel's musicians played with a robust sound and buoyant rhythmic energy. Movements that teemed with busy counterpoint were astonishingly lucid, even at the fleet tempos that were often chosen. A few rough patches mattered less than the performers' grasp of how to highlight each work's individuality without impeding its musical flow. By the time the First Concerto reached its bucolic ending, there was a feeling of having traveled a long way through territory made new again.
A substantial portion of the audience stood and applauded an empty stage at the end of the concert. Perhaps they were saluting Smith's spirit, which continues to suffuse this organization and will likely do so for some time to come.