Baroque music brings to my mind the image of an intricately cut crystal being hit by light. The facets appear as they are lit, and then disappear. You are seeing the light move and of course there is a mathematical order to it all. The pattern of the glitter is really predictable but it happens so fast that you can never keep up with it. You can only watch it with wonder.
Thus it is with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, who composed most of the music presented on Sunday by the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey, under the baton of Maestro Robert Butts. The concert, at Dolan Hall on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station, was originally scheduled for Nov. 11. Thanks to Superstorm Sandy, it had to be rescheduled. It was fortunate for everyone that the venue and all the musicians were available on a day that was so beautiful weatherwise that it compensated for the delay.
And it was especially lucky that pianists Beatrice and Christina Long were available to undertake the astonishing feat of performing two J.S. Bach Concerti for Double Keyboards, BVW 1060 and 1061. The two sisters, who perform singly and together when the occasion arises, are astonishing. Their dynamism and virtuosity and the precision with which they interact is something breathtaking, like a pair of Olympic athletes—except better!
Maestro Butts, always the teacher, kept his remarks brief during this concert. However, he did mention that the Concerto 1061 in C, which was played first, was probably composed after Bach had encountered the “new” instrument, the piano. Butts conjectured that the concerto may thus have been composed with the piano in mind, although his own instrument was the harpsichord. The Long sisters played on two enormous Steinways. Exquisite though that was, we are considering searching the Internet for a performance on a pair of harpsichords, just for curiosity’s sake.
The concert was all Baroque, which, oddly enough, is not a common circumstance with the Baroque Orchestra. Their slogan, “Baroque and Beyond,” has become increasingly accurate, and in fact in May the group is presenting a world premier of a piano concerto by Madison resident Paul Ziegler. This is not a complaint, but we were happy for once to Go For Baroque!
The day began with the Sinfonia #1, by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, one of the older (but not the oldest) of Bach’s many children. Hints of the classical style (think Mozart and Haydn), coming into fashion in the mid-18th century, are evident in the work. It is pleasant enough, but somehow tentative, without the sense of authority evident in the work of the elder Bach. We have heard the story (which may be apocryphal) that the Bach sons thought their father’s music was old-fashioned and out of date. That sounds like human nature in any period, but in this case also sounds funny!
Within the theme of the Bach Family Album, as the concert was subtitled, the orchestra presented a Concerto for Flute and Bassoon, by Georg Philipp Telemann, featuring as soloists flautist Margaret Walker and bassoonist Andrew Pecota. Though not biologically a Bach, as Butts explained, Telemann was a contemporary and close friend of J.S. Bach and godfather to several of the Bach children. (There were about 20 in the brood!)
The work was charming, demonstrating, as the double keyboard works did, an incredible virtuosity in the interaction of the soloists with each other and with the whole orchestra. The two woodwinds sometimes sound eerily like a pair of human voices, an incredible soprano singing with the richest alto.
The Telemann work was followed by the appearance of Beatrice Long, joining the orchestra for the Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056, by J.S. Bach. From the first notes, the power and assertiveness of both composer and soloist were evident. This is music that is intellectual and mathematical, but also surprisingly plaintive and emotional in the second (largo) movement.
Following the breathtaking performance of the two concerti in the concert’s second half, the Long sisters delighted the audience with an encore that could not have more successfully emphasized the range of their talents: Floods of Spring, by Sergei Rachmaninoff. If Baroque music calls up an image of light glancing off the facets of a crystal, Rachmaninoff elicits the picture of waves breaking on a rocky shore. Or at any rate, that’s how it sounds to me.