Back to Bach: KSO Stages a Monumental Performance of Bach’s Complete Brandenburg Concerti

By the time of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750, the Baroque style in music—of which Bach was one of its most respected contributors—was sounding a bit old-fashioned to the ears of those of the mid 18th century. As musical taste gravitated toward the simpler, cleaner ideals of “classicism” that emphasized melody and texture over layered polyphony, Bach’s music, lacking current performances, drifted out of the public consciousness. Contemporary taste moved on, as it inevitably does, over the next half century or so, to the likes of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.

While Bach was not totally forgotten after his death, as popular myth would have it, the story of Felix Mendelssohn’s Berlin revival performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829—the first one in 100 years—is true. It is also true that the performance, and Mendelssohn’s efforts, revived interest in Bach as a composer—an interest that has grown, and today ranges from intense admiration to what can arguably be called a cult following. If anyone doubted this deep and seemingly universal interest, filmmaker Michael Lawrence’s 2010 documentary, Bach and Friends, made the case in dramatic form, with a diverse group of more than two dozen artists—among them Philip Glass, Béla Fleck, Bobby McFerrin, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, Joshua Bell, and Hilary Hahn—performing and commenting on Bach’s profound influence on them as musicians.

Building on its Chamber Classics performance earlier this month, which featured two of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra offers its own profound statement this week in an all-Bach pair of Masterworks concerts with performances of all six of the Brandenburgs, split over the Thursday and Friday evenings. The concerts will also offer two orchestral transcriptions of Bach solo works by Leopold Stokowski: the “scary” Toccata and Fugue in D minor (originally for organ) and the Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor. The orchestra will be under the baton of KSO resident conductor James Fellenbaum.

The six Brandenburgs, titled by Bach as Six Concerts avec plusieurs instruments (“Six concertos with several instruments”), represent not only a pinnacle in Baroque music but the stylistic best of the composer’s instrumental works. The concerti are nothing if not varied in their instrumentation, probably an indication that they were drawn into a set from previously composed material. This offers a feast of solo opportunities, most of which will be taken by KSO members.

“This is going to be a very interesting week for me, personally,” says KSO concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz. “I’ve got significant solos in each of the Brandenburgs, except No. 6, which has no violins. And ironically, the piece in which I don’t have any solos is Stokowski’s arrangement of the Chaconne in D Minor, which was originally written for solo violin.”

The Thursday evening performance will find Lefkowitz joined by flutists Ebonee Thomas and Jill Bartine in the Brandenburg No. 4 in G Major. Also on that concert is the No. 3 in G Major (all strings) and the No. 1 in F Major (winds and strings).

Lefkowitz and Thomas will pair again as soloists in the No. 5 in D Major on the Friday night concert along with harpsichordist Michael Unger. Also on that concert is the No. 6 in B flat Major that will feature violists Kathryn Gawne and Eunsoon Corliss. Concluding the series will be the No. 2 in F Major with soloists Thomas (flute) and Lefkowitz (violin) joined by Phylis Secrist (oboe) and guest Ryan Beach, the principal trumpet with the Indianapolis Symphony.

More so than any other composer, J.S. Bach has endured a lot of experimentation, some good, some bad, including adaptations, period-instrument performances, and contemporization. Along with the 1970s Bach-on-the-synthesizer fad, the Leopold Stowkowski (1882-1977) orchestral transcriptions on this concert certainly fall into that category. Stokowski argued that his transcriptions opened the door to solo works the public would never get to hear otherwise; purists argue that tampering with a composer’s intent is rarely beneficial. Nevertheless, the arrangement of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which will open the concert, was featured in Disney’s 1940 animated masterpiece Fantasia and probably did introduce a lot of people to Bach and classical music.

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