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July 16, 2011

Small World

The San Francisco Bay Area is a major center for early music, but it's also, in the end, a rather tiny population cluster, compared to places like London and New York.  This means there are fewer musicians to fill the many available slots.  So when we Bay Areans attend baroque concerts, we are likely to see some of the same performers over and over, populating the stages of entirely different performing groups.  This is actually a good thing, in that it a) enables us to see our best performers repeatedly and b) gives a kind of intimate, homey quality to the various concerts.

Last night I attended the opening night concert of the American Bach Soloists' summer festival, now in its second year at the lovely main concert hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  It was an all-Bach program, but in particular, it was an all-chamber program, so there were never more than a handful of musicians on the stage at once.  These included Katherine Kyme, familiar to me mainly as one of the two violinists in the excellent New Esterhazy Quartet, but here appearing as a guest violist with the ABS; Tanya Tompkins, who is known throughout the Bay Area for her fine solo performances on the baroque cello and who normally performs with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra; and the marvelous Elizabeth Blumenstock, for many years the lead violinist with Philharmonia Baroque and a frequent guest soloist at ABS concerts.

The first three pieces on the program were a sonata for violin, cello, and harpsichord; one of the Bach suites for unaccompanied cello; and a sonata for oboe and harpsichord.  All three were performed against a wooden screen that separated off the majority of the stage from the audience and made the subdued baroque sound completely audible.  (This was especially important in Tanya Tompkins's terrific but often very quiet performance of the Sixth Cello Suite, performed on an unusual five-string cello which was even smaller than the average baroque cello.)  All throughout these pieces, I was idly wondering how the stagehands were going to clear away the screen and add twenty seats in the brief moment between the penultimate piece on the program and the listed finale, which was the fifth Brandenburg Concerto. 

Well, they never did clear away the screen.  They simply moved the harpsichord back a bit and added stands for four standing and two sitting musicians.  The Brandenburg concerto was played with only seven performers: one violin soloist and one flute soloist, a harpsichord for continuous backup and one brief solo, and four intermittent backup musicians, who included one other violin, a viola, a cello, and a violone (which, to the amateur eye, closely resembled a double bass).  This meant that every musician's sound came through clearly and individually, so that you could choose to follow any performer's role and hear it as a single line of music before returning to the closely woven group sound that they were all creating.  It was almost like listening to a string quartet, but with the added richness of a full concerto.  Suddenly I realized why most previous live performances of the Brandenburgs have sounded muddy to me -- there were just too many instruments onstage!  In this seven-hundred seat hall, with its excellent acoustics and attentively silent audience, seven was the perfect number of players; and I felt, for once, as if I were getting the Bach masterpiece in exactly the intimate form it was meant to take.
July 16, 2011 11:36 AM | | Comments (0)

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