Bach to Bach

Frankly Music opens season brilliantly with two of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

By - Sep 30th, 2014 04:01 pm
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Frankly Music Ensemble - Featuring Frank Almond, Sonora Slocum, Jennifer Gunn and Mark Niehaus

Frankly Music Ensemble – Featuring Frank Almond, Sonora Slocum, Jennifer Gunn and Mark Niehaus

Frankly Music marked the start of an 11th season Monday evening with a capacity crowd of over 300 at their new Fall venue, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The concert featured two of Bach’s most creative and challenging ensemble works – his second and fourth Brandenburg Concertos.

Guest artist violist Nicholas Cords joined Frank Almond on violin for an impressive duet to open the concert, performing Bohuslav Martinu’s Three Madrigals (1947). They opened with brash attacking strings. The work rarely let up. In a weaving dialogue each instrument responded immediately – if not overlapping – with the other. Short melodic forms reminiscent of Bach violin partitas emerged.

After a perpetual motion opening, the Three Madrigals settled into a slow movement featuring rising and falling melodies emerging from continuous trills in each instrument. The final movement introduced folk melodies, becoming a raucous dance at the close. Almond and Cord play together in a New York ensemble, An die Musik, and Cords has been a frequent guest for the Frankly Music series. They clearly shared a perspective on this challenging work.

Principle Milwaukee Symphony flutist Sonora Gunn

Principle Milwaukee Symphony flutist Sonora Gunn

Cellist Adrien Zitoun joined Cords and Almond for a pleasant Prelude and Fugue in F for String Trio (K404a, no 4), developed by Mozart as a transcription from two Bach organ works. In the Prelude, Zitoun played a repetitive basso continuo line, while Cords and Almond sang gently woven melodies well above the cello. A three voice fugue closed the work.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 4 featured a trio of solo instruments backed by a small string ensemble. Flutists Sonara Slocum and Jennifer Gunn played together in tight harmony. Almond’s violin played independently, sometimes a part of the ensemble, then emerging as a solo instrument in imitation of the flute lines. For the central slow movement, harpsichordist Patricia Lee, cellist Zitoun and bassist Andre Raciti served as the only basso continuo to allow a lighter interplay among featured flutes and violin. As the concerto progressed, the violin took on increasingly challenging solo turns. But the work will be recalled as a concerto for flute duet. Slocum and Gunn’s infectious sound danced above the strings.

Principal Chicago Symphony Piccolo Jennifer Gunn

Principal Chicago Symphony Piccolo Jennifer Gunn

The concert closed with the virtuosic Brandenburg Concerto No 2. Bach selected four solo treble instruments, each representing a different family – strings, winds, reed and brass. Mark Niehaus played a period piccolo trumpet, an instrument with a range very close to the flute. Oboist Katie Young Steele, flutist Slocum and violinist Almond completed the group.

Melodies were passed among the players – often as duets – then back to the ensemble. The trumpet sat out the central slow movement. A final movement featured a virtuosic four-part fugue. What may be virtuosic on a flute can be next to impossible to play on trumpet. Niehaus rose to the challenge, opening the movement but managing to blend with the others for most of the work. The trumpet emerges brightly to close the work, earning Niehaus and the quartet an immediate standing ovation from the crowd.

Although a somewhat bright hall, St. Paul’s acoustic was clear – with no secondary echo to bounce a flute or trumpet line back into itself the way locations such as St. Joseph’s Basilica can do. But the large chamber in the front of the church did amplify the string ensemble – especially the bass – making it difficult to balance tutti instruments and soloists when both were playing.

Joining the ensemble for the Brandenburg Concertos were Milwaukee Symphony players violinists Timothy Klabunde, Margot Schwartz and Yuka Kadota, violist Nathan Hackett, cellists Adrien Zitoun and Peter Szczepanek and bassist Andrew Raciti.

The Frankly Music series returns to Saint Paul’s on Monday November 24th for an all string concert featuring music of Richard Strauss and Mozart. Strauss wrote a sextet, Capriccio, as a major element in his opera of the same name. In the opera, Strauss presents the work to make a convincing case for music as a superior art form. A septet version of Metamorphosen – often performed by full orchestra – will also be featured. The concert will also include a Mozart masterwork, String Quintet No 3 (K 515).

New York City performers Toby Appel and Mario Gotoh will join Almond and MSO players – Ilana Setapen, Susan Babini, Peter Thomas and Andrew Raciti. Visit the Frankly Music website for more information.

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