There is something about the pace of Baroque music that makes me happy. Perhaps it’s the regularity of the beat that I find profoundly rational and soothing.
Nothing provokes this response in me more than the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose brilliant Brandenburg Concerto #2 was a centerpiece of the Sunday afternoon concert by the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey under the baton of Maestro Robert W. Butts. The event was held at Grace Church in Madison, one of the orchestra’s regular venues.
The Brandenburgs, six altogether, were possibly history’s most beautiful job application. Composed for the Margrave of Brandenburg, they are not a matched set and were probably composed at different times over a period of years. Each is a unique and glittering jewel with its own themes and instrumentation. The second features a baroque orchestra with continuo and four soloists, flute, oboe, violin and trumpet.
(Apparently the six Brandenburgs were not performed in the Margrave’s lifetime, and the manuscripts were found after his death. They certainly have been played since then by musicians all over the world.)
Maestro Butts offered an intriguing introduction. Selecting a short passage, he began by having one section of the orchestra play its own simple part. Then he had a second section join in with its part, and so on, adding sections until the orchestra was playing an exquisite and intricate combination of melodies, countermelodies and harmonies. And then the four soloists came in with their parts, and the orchestra’s beautiful passage became simply a background for the incredible solos. Insights like this provided by Maestro Butts are a special joy of BONJ concerts.
The soloists were Laura Ferraro, flute, Nancy Vanderslice, oboe, Agnes Kwasniewska, violin, and Cyril Bodnar, trumpet, and John Pivarnik played the continuo. All the soloists are regular members of the orchestra.
Though still called the Baroque Orchestra, the group has adopted the slogan, “Baroque and Beyond,” playing a wide variety of music from different periods. This was true Sunday, except for one other Baroque piece that was featured.
If you take the diamond-hard and mathematical brilliance of J.S. Bach and add to it a touch of sweetness, you get something approximating the sound of Antonio Vivaldi. His Concerto in C major for piccolo was presented, featuring as soloist Kathleen Nester, who is second flute and solo piccolo of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
Vivaldi was a contemporary of Bach, though a few years older, and was a popular and influential composer in his lifetime. Bach, in fact, was influenced by Vivaldi’s work.
The piccolo concerto is a joy-filled work, rich in melody. The piccolo’s high-pitched trills, evokes the sound of birds singing. Among composers, Vivaldi was a master of capturing the beauty of nature in his music. This concerto is a perfect example.
The program on Sunday took a sharp turn after the intermission, with the presentation of a masterpiece from the Romantic period:the Piano Concerto in A minor by Robert Schumann. This work was composed more than 120 years after Bach gathered his concertos to send to Brandenburg. Schumann composed the piece to be performed by his wife, Clara, perhaps the most celebrated piano soloist of her time.
The soloist on Sunday was Rob Kreiser, a young pianist who has been making his mark in various competitions. If Bach’s music personifies the Age of Enlightenment (and we think it does), Schumann’s work is a perfect representation of Romanticism. Full of mood and emotion, it is passionate, with a certain hard-to-define darkness. There is no pause between the second and third movement, and it ends with a triumphal roll of the timpani, which is prominent throughout the piece.
As an encore, Kreiser played Chopin’s Prelude, Op.28. No. 15.
The concert began at the most modern end of the spectrum with a performance by Fortissimo Flutes, an ensemble of the New Jersey Youth Symphony under the direction of Diana Charos Reilly. The group of eight gifted teenagers performed pieces by David Uber and Gary Shocker, both born in the 20th century.