Six Brandenburgs at the San Francisco Symphony

Dave and I saw both halves of the San Francisco Symphony’s two-part “Baroque Delights” concerts (what an awful name that is), each concert including three of the six Brandenburg concertos and one or two popular Handel suites. The tickets were discounted on Goldstar, and the Brandenburgs are always terrific and, well, I’m sure Handel won’t care if my mind wanders while listening to his Royal Fireworks and Water Music once again. (After all, he wrote them in the first place as background music, as music intended to accompany but not distract you from whatever else you might be paying attention to at the same time. It seems to me that he was altogether successful in this, and the suites are perfectly pleasant pieces to listen to while reading or working; but why they keep turning up in concerts baffles me.)

The first of the two concerts, which was conducted by Jane Glover, was lovely. The sound balance was poor during the Water Music suite that opened the concert, and the lower strings were just about inaudible (couldn’t they have borrowed a shell from Berkeley Symphony or somewhere?). This boded ill for the rest of the concert, but as it worked out, different subsets of the orchestra were needed for each work, so the players rearranged themselves in between works, and the balance problems were mostly fixed for the rest of the concert. Whew.

I’ve heard more exciting performances of these three Brandenburgs (I love the sharper tang of period instrument performances, myself), but this was certainly one of the suavest — clear and polished and full of crisp colors. The first of them to be played was No. 3, which was enjoyable but a little on the polite side for my taste — in the last movement especially, I like a faster pace and for the occasional cross rhythms to have more of a kick to them.

No. 2, which was next on the program, was a particular joy — all four soloists (Nadya Tichman on violin, Robin McKee on flute, Jonathan Fischer on oboe, and John Thiessen on trumpet) were terrific, both individually and as an ensemble. In No. 6, the four solo violas were led by Jonathan Vinocour, who can produce an amazingly beautiful, rich sound out of his instrument. (He is also looking very woofy lately with his scruffy red beard.) The ensemble playing, the back-and-forth conversations where a theme is tossed around from instrument to instrument, all of it was clear and intricate and a lot of fun to hear.

The concert ended with Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks and I’m afraid my mind started wandering again.

The second concert, a few days later, was conducted by Alexander Barantschik, who also played all the violin solos — halfway through the program it finally dawned on me that Brandenburgs Nos. 1, 4, and 5 have in common a violin among the soloists, and that’s why the six were divvied up that way.

This concert is now a strong candidate for the least enjoyable concert I’ve ever attended performed by an orchestra that wasn’t actually playing wrong notes. The Brandenburgs aren’t concertos in the modern sense; they’re not showpieces for a virtuoso soloist with the rest of the orchestra reduced to a supporting role. Each of the Brandenburgs has at least three soloists, and they spend more time playing as a small ensemble than they do playing individually. The point is in the musical conversation back and forth between the large group and the small group. So — with the exception of one portion of one movement, which I’ll get to in a moment — the orchestra is every bit as important as the group of soloists.

Mr. Barantschik and his players, though, seemed to think that these were bravura violin concertos in the Romantic style, or at least that they could be turned into something resembling that with enough determination. The result wasn’t happy.

No. 1 (my personal favorite of the six) was the most successful of the three, mostly because the violin is only one of six soloists. Three of the others are horns, in fact, and the parts Bach wrote for them are scene stealers.

But now and then Mr. Barantschik did have a violin solo, and when he played, it suddenly seemed like he’d stepped in from the wrong century. His playing was yearning, passionate, rhythmically free, with more than a touch of Gypsy in it, and it floated above all the other instruments instead of blending with them. His violin was even tuned slightly sharper than the rest of the orchestra, the way a soloist in a nineteenth-century violin concerto will sometimes do to make him stand out against the orchestra rather than blend in. There was no back-and-forth between the solo violin and the other instruments, just the violin soaring rhapsodically above the background music provided by the rest of the orchestra. Which is perfectly fine for a bravura showpiece for a star violinist, but not so good for intricate baroque counterpoint. Considered apart from its context, it was beautiful, even sumptuous playing, but oh did it ever not belong in this music.

This was only an intermittant annoyance in No. 1, but it got sillier and more irritating in No. 4. With fewer soloists, and none of them horns, there were more frequent opportunities for the violin to seize attention at the expense of the music as a whole.

But then No. 5 actually made me angry. I had already said to Dave at intermission that I didn’t see why they didn’t just use a modern grand piano instead of a harpsichord if they were going to play the concertos in this way. With the louder modern instruments playing in the louder modern style, the harpsichord was very difficult to hear in the first two concertos, just an indistinct tinkling in the background.

Well, in No. 5, the soloists are the violin, flute, and harpsichord, and the first movement — the exception I mentioned earlier — ends with a very lengthy, difficult, and flashy cadenza for the harpsichord. This is far and away the most prominent solo turn in all the Brandenburgs, the one time any instrument is actually called on to show off for a couple of minutes while the rest of the orchestra keeps quiet. Music historians point to this movement as a percursor, in fact, to what the concerto later became.

Furthermore, playing the harpsichord was Robin Sutherland, the Symphony’s phenomenally wonderful keyboard player. So we figured at least the harpsichord cadenza would be stunning, as it’s the one place in the Brandenburgs where this kind of all-focus-on-the-virtuoso approach is not completely misguided.

Well, the way the orchestra was arranged for No. 5, the harpsichord was behind the other two soloists, the violin and the flute, when it desperately needed to be up front and center — no, it really needed to be positioned smack in the middle of the audience, if only that were possible. In any case, something, anything that would have helped correct the imbalance ought to have been done. Even just seeing Mr. Sutherland more clearly might have helped things, if only psychologically. But as it was, even during the passages where no one was playing but the three soloists, the harpsichord was faint against the other two instruments, and the effect was of a duet for flute and violin with some unimportant harpsichord doodling in the background to fill in the harmonies.

What’s happening in the music during this passage, as we move toward the cadenza, is that the harpsichord is gradually taking on more and more importance and the flute and violin are being reduced to melodic fragments. But with the harpsichord weak in the background, none of that came off — it just sounded like Bach was running out of music for the two real soloists, the violin and the flute, to play.

During the big cadenza itself, the rest of the orchestra was silent, so at least we could finally hear the harpsichord distinctly. But the volume was still so low compared with everything else we’d been hearing the whole evening that it came off as anticlimactic.

This was frustrating, but hey, even great artists now and then make really dumb miscalculations, and I was ready to give everybody the benefit of a doubt and write it all off as a bizarre but ultimately well-meaning attempt to try something different that just didn’t come off. However, Mr. Barantschik’s manner during the cadenza pushed me over from merely frustrated to actually angry.

As I said, the way the soloists were arranged for this concerto, Mr. Barantschik and the flautist were standing in front of the harpsichord. As the cadenza started, Mr. Barantschik stepped several feet to one side, which sounds innocuous enough in writing but which in the moment seemed like an ostentatious, attention-drawing movement — the star of the show gracious stepping aside to let someone else have his brief moment. Even sillier, Mr. Barantschik actually picked up his music stand and carried it with him, which had no purpose that I could see other than to make the gesture that much more theatrical — it wasn’t like moving the music stand was going to help us hear the harpsichord any better. The flautist, I have to say, did the same thing, but a moment later, and it looked like he had not been expecting this and was uneasily following Mr. Barantschik’s lead.

Then, instead of paying attention to (or at least feigning attention to) Mr. Sutherland’s cadenza, Mr. Barantschik stared intensely at his music, nodding his head with the beat all the while — an attention-drawing movement that I and my fellow amateur musicians have been sternly warned against by the conductor in every musical group I’ve been part of since grade school, so how is it that Mr. Barantschik doesn’t realize how distracting it is? Anyway, I know the cadenza well enough to know roughly where we are in it without having to stare at the music — just by, you know, listening — and surely Mr. Barantschik knows the music far better than me. So this seemed like gratuitously ungracious behavior.

As Mr. Sutherland approached the climax of his showpiece, Mr. Barantschik lifted up his violin with an air of getting himself ready to come in on time — except that it was much earlier than he actually needed to get ready, and I cannot see what point there was to this other than to make a large physical movement that would pull the audience’s attention back to him (or at least the attention of that portion of the audience that wasn’t already focused on the bobbing of his head) a moment before the high point of another soloist’s turn.

The Handel piece that night — yet another Water Music suite — turned out to be the most satisfying thing the whole evening, in spite of its relative triviality as music. The orchestra was clearly enjoying itself as it played, everybody was listening to one another and responding to one another, and nobody was trying to twist the music into something it wasn’t. This is a fine orchestra, and if they’d played the three Brandenburgs in that spirit, it would have been a fine concert.

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