Boston Classical Review
By David Wright
Emmanuel Music, founded to perform the cantatas of J.S. Bach, turned a refracting telescope on the master Saturday night at Emmanuel Church with a program of his orchestral music coupled with 20th-century works by Stravinsky and Corigliano.
Bach’s influence on the Western tradition in music is so pervasive that the concert’s title, “Connected by Bach,” could apply to almost any repertoire the musicians decided to play. At this event one found oneself ultimately asking not “What does this music tell me about Bach?” but “Does this music make a satisfying program?”
The answer to the latter was yes. Ideas not only of Baroque and neo-Baroque but of dance and the lyrical impulse reflected on each other throughout the evening before all coming together in the closing work, Stravinsky’s 1920 “ballet in one act with song,” Pulcinella.
The concert opened big with Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D major, music of celebration blazing with trumpets and booming with drums. Oboes, bassoon and strings rounded out the ensemble, which conductor Ryan Turner handled deftly, allowing instruments to emerge naturally from the texture whenever Bach turned the spotlight on them. The old saying that Bach’s music sounds like Baroque architecture in notes never seemed more vividly realized than at the start of the Ouverture, with its string curlicues set off by crisp trumpet ta-dahs.
In the sequence of idealized dances that followed, Turner and the players took every opportunity to explore orchestral color and to meaningfully vary the repeats, while realizing Bach’s overall plan of scaling the music down from grand to intimate—only to wake us up at the end with a brilliant finale titled “Réjouissance” (Rejoicing).
It’s not known what Bach was rejoicing about in this music—a nuptial celebration, perhaps?—but the next two works on Saturday’s program sprang from well-documented occasions: the wedding anniversaries of 20th-century American patrons of music.
Sadly, John Corigliano’s Fancy on a Bach Air became a memorial piece with the death of one of its honorees, Boston resident Robert Goldberg. Part of a multi-composer set of new “Goldberg” variations that was first performed by the Goldbergs’ friends Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, Corigliano’s piece is for the cello alone, evoking thoughts of Bach’s pioneering suites for that instrument while distilling Bach’s famous melody into a seemingly endless line of long notes. Cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer’s rapt, subtly inflected performance created a Messiaen-like atmosphere suggesting vast space and eternal love.
In his memoirs, Stravinsky made much of the connection between Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and his own “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto in E-flat. Named for the Washington, D.C. estate of Robert and Mildred Bliss, who commissioned the piece in 1937, this concerto does follow a traditional three-movement plan and include some fugal writing, but in other respects it is one hundred percent Stravinsky. While it had its attractive moments, the Turner-led performance Saturday night didn’t fully realize this composer’s sharp angularity and jolting syncopations.
The Emmanuel musicians were perhaps on more familiar ground in Pulcinella, the comic-romantic ballet score consisting of 20 brief movements by Pergolesi and others, gently Stravinsky-ized in harmony and scoring. Turner made each movement a little gem of a character piece while keeping the action bubbling along.
Performing the entire score with its interpolated love songs added a delicious extra dimension to the familiar instrumental music. The three vocal soloists played well together and shone in their individual moments: tenor Charles Blandy clear and effortless on high notes in Mentre l’herbetta, bass-baritone Dana Whiteside booming out the humor and rhythmic charge of Con queste paroline, and mezzo-soprano Katherine Growdon sweet and creamy-toned in the subtle emotional colors of Se tu m’ami, se tu sospiri.
The next performances of the Emmanuel Music Orchestra and Chorus are “The Splendour of the Baroque” at Rockport, Mass., 3 p.m. Sunday, March 18 and Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito di Tito, an opera in concert at Emmanuel Church 8 p.m. Saturday, April 14. emmanuelmusic.org. 617-536-3356.