|photo by Dana Ross|
A MILELONG TOY SHOP, A SELF-REFILLING box of Godiva chocolates, an entertainment both profound and giddy: Each of the above can pass as an accurate metaphor for any one of the half-dozen orchestral concertos by J.S. Bach generally but inaccurately known as the “Brandenburgs.” Compound that estimate by six, and you'll come close to the impact of hearing all of these magical exercises at a single sitting — the very miracle that transpired at Royce Hall a few nights ago, handed off in the able ministrations of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and its multitalented, near-genius leader, Jeffrey Kahane.
Something not easily defined sets these concertos apart from the dozens of other orchestral works created at various times in Bach's career. There's a joyousness, an outpouring of inventive fantasy that leads to seemingly implausible sound combinations: one whole work scored only for low strings, another built around a pairing of a piercing high trumpet and the mild-mannered burble of an alto recorder. We tend to shy away from attributing an element of daring to Bach; he stands in the annals as the stick-in-the-mud who wrote in the accepted manner of his time, only better. Yet every one of these six concertos is some kind of step into unexplored shapes and sonorities; No. 5, for example, is the world's first-ever keyboard concerto — the ancestor at some remove, in other words, of the Rach 3 and Rhapsody in Blue.
We don't know the particulars of these works, beyond the information that they figure among the voluminous music Bach composed for his virtuoso orchestra in the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen sometime before 1720, and that in 1721 he made a fair handwritten copy of these six works and sent it off to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, in hopes of getting a better job at that illustrious court. The Margrave never acknowledged the offering; chances are that his own band wouldn't have been up to the music's demands. Later there were legends: that the music ended up as a butcher's wrapping paper, or that the Margrave's entire library was sold for 24 groschen; these stories belong on the shelf next to Georgie Washington's cherry tree. Bach himself held on to his original copies, and even recycled some choice passages. If you think of the first movement of No. 3 as a fascinating study in string-ensemble busyness, check out its later version in the Cantata No. 174 (“Ich liebe den Höchsten”), where Bach has crammed horns and oboes in among the strings to create a texture busy to the point of explosiveness.
“Brandenburgs” come today in staggering profusion — nearly three pages of small print in Schwann — and in all sizes: full symphony orchestra, authentic baroque ensemble, even (shudder!) Max Reger's version for piano duet. The version I grew up on (because there was no other) is still listed: Adolf Busch's eloquent leadership from the concertmaster's chair, modern winds, Rudolf Serkin's piano. Jeffrey Kahane's version incorporated wise compromises, including modern flutes in Nos. 2 and 4 in a room where recorders mightn't carry. Tempos were on the brisk side, but such sublime moments as the exchange of dissonances between Margaret Batjer's violin and Allan Vogel's oboe, in the slow movement of No. 1, were granted time to raise goose bumps — as was Kahane himself, at a splendidly resonant harpsichord, in the astonishing cadenzas in No. 5. The sense, through all this rewarding evening, was of being present at the creation — not to be confused with being present at Haydn's The Creation, which happens to be the next program offering by this valuable, cherishable ensemble.
AMONG MOZART'S 30 OR SO SONATAS for piano and violin there are childhood ventures of negligible worth and mature works large-scale and eloquent. In between comes one great work that I had forgotten about until a recent performance at one of MaryAnn Bonino's “Historic Sites” concerts: a two-movement work in E minor (K. 304), terse and devastating. The music dates from 1779, the time of the death of Mozart's mother and of the remarkable Sinfonia Concertante (K. 364) with its tortured, prophetic slow movement. Its key, E minor, bespeaks an elegiac state of mind; I cannot think of another E-minor work by Mozart, and only one by Haydn. Even its ending is unusual; minor-key works by classical composers usually swing around to the major at the end; this doesn't.
In a room that seemed put on Earth to house loving and authentic performances of Mozart sonatas — Pasadena's Le Petit Trianon — Stanley Ritchie and Steven Lubin, two-thirds of the splendid trio known as the Mozartean Players, turned Mozart's tragic tensions into a chilling experience I cannot get out of my head. The program was altogether fine; cellist Myron Lutzke joined his colleagues for two Mozart trios. But it was that E-minor Sonata, tracing dark matters of the heart whose outlines we can only surmise, that remains with me these many weeks.
PAUL HILLIER EXPLAINS HIS CHOSEN title for his “Theatre of Voices” as a way to “explore the notion of a 'theatre' where the scenery is the sound of voices and the action consists of words.” Good enough, and at the group's recent concert at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall, much of the amazement stemmed from just that “action,” the way, for example, the 14th-century Johannes Ciconia constructed his craggy, mystical-sounding vocal pieces out of the clash of words — of one text in spaced-out long notes doing battle with a troping, explanatory text zooming along at a rapid pace.
A stupendous concert, built out of music full of that kind of inner conflict, and then with musical styles clashing on another level of conflict: some amusing John Cage seguing into a couple of 12th-century bits, Arvo Pärt and Russian Orthodox chant conjoined, or John Tavener with Guillaume Dufay though 500 years apart. Hillier — who with most of his six-member ensemble is currently based at Indiana University — is an extraordinary musician on his own whose works are crowned with an adventurous spirit that delights especially in crossing uncrossable boundaries and making unworkable relationships work. All the world's his stage.