It felt like a safe place, musically, when the Baroque Orchestra of NJ struck the first chords in Sunday’s concert. The composer was Johann Sebastian Bach, and the notes that filled the Dolan Concert Hall at the College of St. Elizabeth were, if not universally familiar, at least easily comprehensible.
The piece was Concerto in C Minor, for orchestra and two pianos (originally composed for two harpsichords). The orchestra, under the baton of Robert W. Butts, was on firm ground and the piano soloists, Soyeon Kim and Ron Levy, dove in at the deep end, smoothly and brilliantly.
The pace of Bach’s music does not allow for hesitation, mental or physical. The intricate interaction among all the instruments, and especially between the two keyboards, is mathematical and relentless, a a reflection of the universe that seems inevitable. With Bach, this is the way things are.
Next, we were brought into a different kind of universe. If Bach seemed mathematical and inevitable, the next work evoked images of an exquisitely landscaped formal garden. The piece was Piano Concerto No. 10, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Mozart is believed to have composed the concerto when he was 19 or 20, for him to play with his sister, Maria Anna, called Nannerl, who was also an accomplished musician. The interaction between the pianos is playful, with the spotlight, as it were, moving back and forth between the two soloists. The focus is on the two pianos, the orchestra providing a sort of backdrop.
The middle movement, andante, is elegant and stately, but, in the final movement, rondo: allegro, the youthful exhuberance of the beginning returns. Wolfgang and Nannerl were having fun. (Imagine having that as the family business!)
The audience knew, however, that the final concerto in this amazing display of keyboard virtuosity was going to shake things up. If Bach’s music is inevitable and Mozart’s is gorgeously joyful, the third composer, Francis Poulenc, is coming to take you out of your comfort zone.
In brief comments before the piece began. Maestro Butts explained that Poulenc was part of a group of artists, in Paris in the years between the two World Wars, who intended to upset conventions. That intention is clear from the first aggressive notes of the concerto.
One reason Poulenc’s work is difficult to describe is that it has so many different things going on simultaneously. At moments, it has a plaintive, lyrical beauty, as if the composer is saying to the audience, “Yes, I can write this kind of music too, if I want to.” Then, he reverts to something else. Bits of Mozart, bits of Beethoven and then Scott Joplin, but none of it easily recognized or identifiable. We are so glad he was not “all about the bass” or familiar with rap.
We must admit we were less than charmed by the Poulenc. But we also admit that we were never bored by it.
As if to reward the audience for its attention to the Poulenc, (Levy virtually said as much!) the soloists performed a short and spectacular encore, Scaramouche, a virtuoso suite for two pianos by Darius Milhaud, composed for the Paris Exposition of 1937. Milhaud was a contemporary of Poulenc and also one of the same group of unconventional artists. But this short piece was far more comprehensible.
Also on the program was one all-orchestral piece, the Overture to Ifigenia en Aulide, by Christoph Willibald Gluck. And before the Baroque Orchestra took the stage, the audience was treated to a series of short pieces by the Fortissimo Flutes, a group of young musicians from the New Jersey Youth Symphony.