By Don Heckman
J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos have been a vital presence in the life of Europe, the Americas and beyond for more than a century and a half — since their rediscovery in the mid-eighteen hundreds. Many of the melodies are widely familiar, even to those who have no idea of their identity. Various segments have been heard as theme music on radio and television, and the 2nd Concerto was included on the recording sent into space in 1977 via the Voyager spacecraft.
That said, the opportunity to hear all six of these remarkable works in one performance doesn’t come along very often. Which made the performance by members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at Royce Hall Sunday night a particularly memorable occasion. Memorable, that is, not simply because of the opportunity to experience all six of the Brandenburgs in one sitting, but because they were delivered in such musically engaging, historically authentic fashion.
The Concertos were not performed in precise sequence – in part to position No. 5 directly after the interval, allowing time to tune the harpsichord for its prominent role in that composition. And in part to schedule No. 2, with its famously spectacular piccolo trumpet part (performed impressively by David Washburn) at the climactic point in the program.
Bach conceived the Brandenburgs as differing instrumental combinations supporting virtuosic solo passages from a concertino group. And the LACO players fulfilled both those directives with impressive results.
Among the highlights: the articulate playing of leader/violinist Margaret Batjer and Allen Vogel’s penetrating oboe on Concerto No. 1; the brisk ensemble collectivity on Concerto No. 3; the violin of Ms Batjer blending with the soaring flute work of David Shostac and Brook Ellen Schoenwald on Concerto No. 4; the dramatic violin work of Josefina Vergara and the beautifully ornamented harpsichord playing of Patricia Mabee on Concerto No.5; the dark-toned strings of violist Robert Brophy and violinist Victoria Miskolczy on No. 6. And, of course, Washburn’s trumpet on No. 2.
It would have been intriguing to have heard No. 4 done with the recorders called for by Bach, rather than contemporary flutes. And – rarity of rarities – it would have been even more fascinating to have heard No. 2 performed with the originally specified natural trumpet in F. But these are minor carps about a performance that was, as I said earlier, memorable in every way.
Listening to this full suite of works, marveling at its remarkable qualities, one could only marvel at the fact that Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg – for whom they were composed – never had them performed. And that the poor soul went to his grave not knowing that whatever memories he left behind would be completely linked to a collection of music he never had the good fortune to hear.
Thanks to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the packed house audience at Royce Sunday night did have the good fortune to hear the extraordinary music that eluded Margrave Ludwig.