The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is a gifted group of over 150 world-class artists dedicated to performing and promoting chamber music. Last night an ensemble from the group treated Chicago with a winter-welcoming special – The Brandenburg Concertos. Michael and I had good seats for the magnificent performance at the Harris Theatre adjacent to Millennium Park.
Perhaps Bach’s most renowned set of works, the concertos are famed for their beauty and complexity. There are six in total, and the program promised and delivered them all. The show was introduced by oboist James Austin Smith, one of the youngest members of the diverse and extremely accomplished group. He joked about never hearing back for a job interview you think you really nailed, then briefly told the story of the concertos: Bach indeed sent the compositions off to the Margrave of Brandenburg around 1720 in an effort to secure an appointment in his estate – the two had been acquainted years earlier. But Bach never heard a word back, and the concertos languished in obscurity until they were revived and published in 1850. Since, they have become some of Bach’s most beloved works.
The Basso Continuo of Baroque chamber music is a key feature – harpsichord and string bass provide a line that sustains each of the concertos. Smith noted that the rest of the instruments interact with the baseline, the primary feature of the music. Harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss held down the musical fort all night long, and is given a magnificent solo in Concerto Number 5 – the first one of the evening that the musicians struck up. Bassist Joseph Conyers was also on stage all night long setting the tone.
The rest of the players came and went, the concertos each scored for different combinations of instruments. For me, the highlight was the Third Concerto – a fierce, densely powerful collection of strings. The themes were picked up by each musician in turn, with the players weaving in and out in perfect sync, fusing their sound – the program notes indicate it is an orchestral concerto, noted for each of the instruments acting as soloist at some point.
The hall was filled with Bach aficionados who turned out to hear these pieces – I saw no snoozing. The crowd was less stuffy than is often present at Symphony Center. The tone for the night was set by a delightful young trombone quartet from Chicago’s Merit School of Music playing Christmas tunes as we milled about in the lobby before the show. Maybe one of them will grow up to be a Chamber Musician of the Society of Lincoln Center one day.
Thanks for reading.