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     Cheryl North :: Reviews

Philharmonia Baroque Revisits J. S. Bach

Review of the performance of October 17, 2008, published in the Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, and other papers of the Bay Area News Group.

By Cheryl North

Two hundred fifty-eight years have passed since the world lost, and Heaven no doubt gained, one of Western culture's most monumental treasurers - composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

Most of the world's cultural historians and musicians agree, that within Bach's vast creative output, there are few, if any, clinkers. Almost everything to which the unassuming German cantor set his quill pen, morphed into a masterpiece.

So why, then, would the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra even think of reconstructing Bach's music for its October set of concerts?

Because -- if Johann Sebastian were still alive, he would probably do it himself.

During his lifetime, he occasionally transported themes by composers like Vivaldi and recast them into his own compositions. In fact, "borrowing" was quite common during baroque times, since many great chorales and religious works were derived from liturgical plainsong or chant.

Therefore, what British-born conductor Paul Goodwin did in combining 10 of Bach's Sinfonias into a single Suite, and oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz did with re-orchestrating Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 2 and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 for the first of four Reconstructing Bach concerts last Friday in Palo Alto, was not at all shocking, but rather quite refreshing.

Goodwin, currently the associate conductor of the Academy for Ancient Music, is renowned abroad for his historically informed interpretations of baroque, as well as classical, romantic and contemporary music.

What he did for Philharmonia's current concerts was to reassemble 10 Sinfonias gleaned from various of Bach's Cantatas into what he describes as "an orchestral suite with contrasting moods and complementary keys, producing a kaleidoscope of colors."

Highlights among the group were the first, taken from the Easter Oratorio, BWV 249, which was colored by three brightly hued baroque trumpets and timpani, and the penultimate section, lifted from Cantata, BWV 156, featuring one of the world's most beautiful, familiar melodies for oboe, played with sinewy grace by Ruiz.

The youthful Ruiz , who is responsible for the re-workings of the program's other selections -- the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in A minor and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major -- is one of North America's most critically acclaimed and sought-after historical woodwind soloists. Moreover, he is also a formidable scholar of early music and authored parts of the concert's excellent program notes.

Bach's four orchestral suites, filled with multiple unforgettable melodies and rhythmic figures, are particular sources of delight. (A baroque "Suite" is a composition in several movements inspired by, and named for, various Renaissance and Baroque dance forms, among which are gigues, menuets, sarabandes, and more.)

Ruiz' research into early manuscripts of Suite No. 2 and Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 motivated him to recast the orchestration, so that primary solo sections are allotted to the oboe rather than either the first violin or the flute. His discovery of other versions of these compositions, written in different keys, served to confirm the practice of reconstructing, reorchestrating and otherwise altering music during Bach's own lifetime.

While I found it a bit hard to shift my musical memories of the Suite No. 2 away from Jean-Pierre Rampal's flute version, Ruiz's fluid, virtuosic performance on the oboe made a convincing argument for coexistence.

Kudos are also due Concertmaster Carla Moore, who bravely milked wonderful music from a miniature child-sized violino piccolo during the Brandenburg. And, most of all, the sounds issuing from Philharmonia Baroque's remarkable collection of authentically recreated historic instruments and played by its consummate musicians, were a joy to hear.

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