17th and 18th century instruments sparkle at St. Martin’s

Note-Worthy April 3, 2014 0 Comments

by Michael Caruso

I recently attended three concerts that reminded me of a long departed but still greatly missed concert series. The first was the Chestnut Hill performance of “The Ides of March,” featuring Camerata Ama Deus conducted by its music director, Valentin Radu. The second was a Philadelphia Orchestra concert led by guest conductor Herbert Blomstedt, and the third was a concert given by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, guest conducted by Matthias Bamert.

CAMERATA AMA DEUS

The first, Camerata Ama Deus’ concert at the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on March 14, should have been the closest to the Concerto Soloists’ former programs at Holy Trinity Church on Rittenhouse Square. The repertoire was certainly similar: concertos by Baroque masters such as Albinoni, Handel, Vivaldi, Bach and Corelli. The concert was even performed in an Episcopal Church, although Holy Trinity is three times the size of St. Martin’s.

Yet there were major differences. Although Camerata played on 17th and 18th century period instruments, the Concerto Soloists performed on their modern counterparts. However, the Concerto Soloists were more historically authentic in that they played without a conductor, since their founder/director Marc Mostovoy gave over this series to his musicians and never conducted any of the concerts. Camerata’s concert, on the other hand — and in contradiction of the Baroque fashion of not employing a conductor — was, indeed, conducted by Radu, even though the use of a conductor didn’t come into vogue until the very end of the 18th century. Prior to that time, most instrumental ensembles were conducted either from the harpsichord or by the concertmaster.

The two finest works on Camerata’s program were oboe concertos featuring Sarah Davol as soloist, and both were set in the key of G minor: Handel’s No. 3 and Bach’s simply listed in the key. There were noticeable differences in the scores. Handel cast his in the traditional four-movement form of a sonata da chiesa (church sonata) of slow-fast-slow-fast whereas Bach’s was set in the three-movement shape of fast-slow-fast-fast that was typical of the Baroque and Classical solo concerto. Handel’s unrivaled gift for beguiling melodies and subtle harmonies set his score apart from Bach’s, which offered unequalled counterpoint and muscular rhythms.

No less beautiful is Corelli’s “Sarabande, Gigue & Badinerie,” probably best known nowadays as half of the score George Balanchine used for “Square Dance.” The first movement is mysteriously poignant, the second sweetly reminiscent of the elegant gestures of 17th century aristocratic salons, and the third an unstoppable flight of melodic fancy.

MOZART AND BRAHMS

Another example of an unnecessary conductor assuming an un-historical position occurred during the first half of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s series of concerts March 20-22 in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. The program featured Mozart’s “Gran Partita” Serenade in B-flat major, K. 361, for winds and contrabass prior to intermission and Brahms’ “Symphony No. 1 in C minor” after the interval. Herbert Blomstedt was the guest conductor.

While his podium input was indispensable in the Brahms, it was totally superfluous in the Mozart. It’s ludicrous to insinuate that 12 wind players and one contrabassist from the Philadelphia Orchestra, all arranged in a semicircle so that everyone could see everyone else, couldn’t have performed the Serenade’s seven movements on their own without Blomstedt standing in the middle of them. The ensemble included principal contrabassist Harold Robinson of Wyncote and principal bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa of West Mt. Airy.

ALL MOZART

The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia is the successor ensemble to the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia. The group changed its name in 2001 when it became one of the resident companies of the Kimmel Center. It had already eliminated those wonderful Sunday afternoon concerts several years before then. Guest conductor Matthias Bamert was on hand Sunday, March 23, to lead an all-Mozart program in Perelman Theater that included two symphonies — “No. 17 in G major” and “No. 40 in G minor” — plus the “Flute Concerto No. 2 in D major” with Philadelphia Orchestra principal flutist Jeffrey Khaner as soloist.

Symphony No. 17 was composed in 1772, when Mozart was all of 16 years old. It’s a lovely work coming from any composer of any age, and a remarkable one from a 16-year-old, but it pales before Mozart’s later works, such as “Symphony No. 40.” The 17th was given a sweet if unmemorable reading that boasted the fine harpsichord playing of Richard Raub of Germantown.

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