When one hears a concert title like “Baroque Masters,” names like Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi leap quickly to mind, along with a myriad of compelling examples from their bodies of work. Yet the Baroque era of music is a vast landscape—along with the familiar, there are plenty of intriguing but unfamiliar works from the well-known composers. Conversely, there are a number of familiar works from a host of lesser-known composers. The Knoxville Symphony’s Chamber Series “Baroque Masters” concert last Sunday explored the era with a number of appealing examples from that treasure trove.
Johann Pachelbel, while a prolific and well-known composer and organist in his late-17th-century day, is mostly known today for one work, his Canon in D Major. Scored for only three violin parts plus basso continuo, the work’s hypnotic quality of melodic invention encased in Baroque simplicity has captured the popular ear in the last 40 years. But this popularity has been a bit painful—adaptations and arrangements for different instruments and instrumental forces have saturated motion pictures, commercials, background music, and wedding ceremonies everywhere. It was refreshing, then, to hear the Canon in D from Maestro Lucas Richman and the orchestra in much the way it was intended—an impression of a gradually increasing tempo brought about by melodic density, a density that seductively leads the listener into its repetitive, but achingly beautiful, web.
More than likely, the Venetian Antonio Vivaldi wrote a good number of his 500 or so instrumental concertos not as abstract creations, but on specific requests or for specific players. For bassoon soloist alone, he penned an amazing 39 concertos, four of them in the key of A minor. To feature the KSO’s new principal bassoon Ellen Connors, Richman selected Vivaldi’s Bassoon Concerto in A minor, RV 499. Connors, who has been a welcome addition to the KSO woodwinds this season, gave a beautifully crisp performance that highlighted not only her velvety bassoon tone, but also a gently subtle interpretation. The second movement, Larghetto, was a stunning example of how slow Baroque invention can almost make time stand still.
Although Johann Sebastian Bach never composed specifically for the theater, as did Handel and some of his Italian contemporaries, his works are, nonetheless, eminently dramatic. Even his large choral works written for church services are infused with musical drama, both in orchestration and in vocal presentation. Bach did venture into secular works, though, and among those, the “Coffee Cantata” (BWV 211), a work for three voices and orchestra, gave Bach the opportunity to have some fun with undisguised comic drama. The premise of a father concerned with his daughter’s bad habit of drinking coffee was a humorous one in the early 18th century and was probably perfect for its venue—a café or coffee garden.
In this performance of the “Coffee Cantata” the tenor narrator was sung by Jonathon Subia; the young girl, Lieschen, was sung by soprano Rebekkah Hilgraves; and her blustering father, Herr Schlendrian, was sung by Knoxville bass Daniel T. Berry. Subia’s unwavering, crystal-clear tenor was perfect for an oratorio narrator. Hilgraves and Berry had some cute stage business and a tray of coffee cups as props to back up their vocal storytelling. Despite a lot of fatherly harrumphing, Berry’s diction was excellent, as was his familiar rich bass. Hilgraves’ beautiful soprano and stage presence were perfect for Lieschen. Richman’s tempo progression built perfectly into the finale trio.
The biggest shock was the English translation from the German. In fact, it wasn’t a translation at all, but a rather unfortunate English adaptation, no doubt to make the text more accessible to a modern non-German speaking audience.
Richman opened the concert with Handel’s Overture to Theodora and Purcell’s Music from The Fairy Queen. Although I have joked about serving coffee with the “Coffee Cantata,” both the audience and the orchestra could have probably used a strong cup or two going in. Both works, great examples of the English Baroque, were enjoyable. But they seemed to be missing a bit of that intangible Baroque sparkle, that crispness and satisfying precision that elevates a string ensemble from the perfectly acceptable to the perfectly sublime.