Last week my friend AH asked me if I would be interested in an evening of Bach with her and DS on Sunday. It’s been quite some time since I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy some beautiful classical music so I jumped at the chance to join them.
The Curtis Institute of Music here in Philadelphia does a series of student recitals every year. Over one hundred. Sunday night was once such recital, in a beautiful location: St. Mark’s Church. St. Mark’s was built in 1849, and it’s a grand stone building, very Gothic Revival. Needless to say an incredible setting for an evening of baroque music.
The concert was the complete Brandenburg Concertos by J. S. Bach. This is quite the endeavor, especially for a student recital. Most student recitals are small groups, or solos with accompaniment. These Concertos require multiple different arrangements of instruments and people, all of varying number. Sometimes a student would be playing the lead part, yet in the Concerto immediately previous or following they might be the support. Not an easy situation for a student, yet an incredible opportunity. The evening was divided into two halves: No. 1 through No. 3 at 4pm, and then No. 4 through No. 6 at 7:30pm. Between was a dinner break.
One of the things that makes this arrangement of the Brandenburg Concertos unique was the harpsichord (side note: what’s with harpsichords almost always being painted in gaudy colors? the inside of the lid on this one was bright orange with a gold border!). And in some it was the support, yet in others it took a more prominent role. Each Number had a combination of strings and/or wind instruments and the harpsichord. Not something you get to hear everyday.
No. 1 had some great echoes between the violins, the oboes and the horns. The violins would play the melody solo, the whole group would play, the oboes would have the melody solo, the whole group would play, and then the horns had the solo. It was really interesting to hear how each different type of instrument changed how the melody sounded.
In No. 2 the trumpet was awesome! The trumpet player was a young woman and she rocked it. It was a small trumpet, almost like they had folded it in on itself, but wow what a sound. She had a great clear tone and never got lost behind all the other players.
No. 3 was all strings. The cellos were great. And the professor played the harpsichord for this one because there’s a moment where Bach gives the player liberty to do what he likes. Pure improvisation. I’m sure he decided how he was going to play it that very day.
Next was the dinner break. St. Mark’s is in a part of town with restaurants everywhere. And nearby was Monk’s, home of yummy Belgian beer and mussels. AH went for mussels with a bit of spice (she has a cold so spicy food is always nice to help clear the sinuses). I decided to try their burgers this time, getting the “Trappist” with lettuce, tomato and goat cheese, hold the raw onions please. It was quite yummy. DS also had a burger and we split a basket of their yummy pommes frites. But the Bourbon mayo that comes with the fries was all his (Bourbon is just not my thing). And of course we all had a beer (how can you not?).
We got back to the church in plenty of time to get a good seat for the second half.
The violin player that had the primary part in No. 4 was amazing. His fingers positively danced on the strings. It was such incredible finger work and he played it effortlessly. The two flutes played off of each other beautifully, alternately letting each other be the stronger sound. And with such beautiful clear tone to their playing. In general all the players were so impressive during all three movements of No. 4.
No. 5 contained the harpsichord solo. The professor played again for this Concerto, as one movement contained quite a long solo with plenty of room for interpretation.
For No. 6 there was another unique element: no violins, only the lower strings (viola, cello and bass). It was beautiful. It was amazing to see how the violas played almost “around” each other, one playing then the other, chasing each other through the melody. I love canons in music. Many of my favorite musical pieces are canons, so it was great to hear one with a pair of violas.
All six of the Concertos have this wonderful layering element to them. I love how Bach layers the music and you can hear him building them: one instrument starts, then another picks up the melody, then a third, then eventually everyone joins in. And try as I might, I can’t pick a favorite one. I enjoyed them all immensely.
It was an amazing evening of music. And I was positively humbled by the talent of these young musicians. I’m going to have to check out other student recitals. You just can’t beat an evening of free classical music played by a group of students that obviously have a passion for what they are playing.