Encores & Curtain Calls: Baroque at its best
“(Handel) is the only person I would wish to see before I die, and the only person I would wish to be, were I not Bach.”
— Johann Sebastian Bach
Well, I know what I’m going to be doing the afternoon before New Year’s Eve. And, if you have a similar hankering for multiple and simultaneous musical innovations far beyond even what the most progressive jazz can deliver, you, too, will be at the Academy of Music in Northampton, marveling at the arguably transcendent works of three of the greatest masters of the baroque: George Frideric Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi.
Under the banner of “Brandenburgs PLUS,” the Berkshire Bach Society’s bill of fare for the penultimate evening of the year couldn’t be much more enticing — at least to lovers of musical momentum and precipitous, sonic roller-coaster rides: Vivald’s Concerto in F (RV 568) for two horns, two oboes and solo violin; Bach’s Concerto in C for violin and oboe, in a “new reconstruction” that promises to allow “more of Bach’s original music to be heard than ever before” — whatever that may mean; a “devilish Harpsichord Concerto No. 15 in D minor by Handel (stolen largely from Telemann) with a special cadenza by harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper”; and, perhaps the pieces de resistance of the batch, the second and third of Bach’s six incomparable Brandenburg concertos.
The event sports “19 world-class virtuosi” as well as guest artist for the evening: violinist Joseph Silverstein, a former music director of the Utah Symphony Orchestra, among many other ensembles.
This too-well-kept secret of an ensemble, based in Great Barrington, is doing us the distinct honor of transporting itself to an easy-to-reach local venue with, as it happens, superb acoustics, for an evening of radiant, resonant, Golden Age, end-of-era baroque masterpieces.
I wrote recently about an eccentric New York classical music host by the name of Reginald DeKoven who aired a late-night show in which he played nothing but music from the baroque and rococo. Indeed, his entire trajectory of sound ran from early baroque to early Beethoven and ended there.
And who can blame him? If one had to choose an era that most reliably delivers music of predictable charm, invention and comfort, the baroque would have to be it. True, there are areas of more over-the-top passion and risk, eras of more radical invention and eras of less formally constrained art — but no other era guarantees its listeners such a skillful, sonically-saturated, safe and satisfying ride as the baroque.
Why might I dare to write such a categorical generalization about an era so rich, so replete with repertoire of every conceivable kind — instrumental and choral pieces, solo, chamber and orchestral works, sacred and sacred creations?
Only because the mind of the garden variety baroque composer grew up conceiving of music as a world of mutually exclusive emotional compartments — or “effects” — and they composed accordingly: an upbeat, joyful effect for this movement, or a doleful, somber one for the next; for the last, maybe a furious, no-holds barred finale bent upon impressing the reigning monarch and employer of the moment, giving him a double-barreled dose of his court composer’s admirable originality (an irony here being that the dedicatee for whom Bach penned his six fabulous Brandenburgs very likely never heard them, or the knock-’em-dead brilliance they harbored.)
Compartments upon compartments — each one true to itself — remaining letter and verse what it purported to be at the beginning and promises to be until the bitter or, hopefully, glorious end; sad, jubilant, aggressive, serene, you name it.
Baroque is definitely for you if you happen to be one of those people — they do exist in substantial numbers — who do not enjoy having his or her musical fix invaded and sabotaged, unannounced, by moments of rude awakening, such as aberrant rhythms, revolutionary harmonies, dangerously teetering structures. They, like any reasonable human being, prefer symmetry, balance, proportion and gentlemanly-and-ladylike-ness.
Indeed, if this is what floats your boat, the baroque will rarely if ever let you down.
But if you don’t particularly cotton to pre-mapped musical travels, predictable sonic patterns or hanging out in emotional sitting rooms decorated with unchanging, wall-to-wall emotional content, you will eventually become quite a restless camper with too liberal a dose of the baroque.
For example, take Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto — on the bill for Berkshire’s New Year’s Eve bash. It’s marked “Allegro moderato,” which translates as “quickly and bright,” coming in at between 105 and 132 beats per minute (rather like one’s basic pulse rate).
And so does the music proceed to fulfill this recipe: from the opening gunshot, the various strings, winds, along with trumpet and harpsichord, come bolting out of the starting gate, pumping at their given tempo; let’s say it’s a go-ahead 128. Ebullient, impetuous, infectious skeins of sound unravel, layer upon layer, like a flock of overenthusiastic, hyperactive partiers bent upon co-opting you into their dance, until, at length, out of growing amusement, we find ourselves surrendering to the intoxication of their madness.
But, let’s move on to the second movement, labeled “andante,” or “easily going” (from Italian, “andare,” to go). You’ll find yourself on a placid and soothing carriage-ride through seamlessly sedentary country; it’s almost enough to convince you that life truly is nothing more than the fabled bowl of cherries optimists insist it is.
And so it goes — whether Vivaldi, Handel or Bach — all peer and compose through the shared lens of a world view that packages the various parts of the human soul in tidy self-contained parcels of emotion, free of contamination by all others.
The Academy of Music, is at 274 Main St. Northampton, Tickets are $45, $35, $20. Berkshire Bach member discount, $5/ticket.
Students free with ID
Tickets: 413 584-9032, ext. 105
Hot tip of the week
If you’ve never enjoyed his Muses before, take in composer and improvising pianist Steven Schoenberg’s “A Winter Solstice Solo Piano Concert,” Dec. 21, 8 p.m., at the Arts Block in Greenfield.
There’s very little chance you’ll regret it.
Tickets are $17 online, $24 at door. http://theartsblock.com.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.