Saturday, February 10, 2007

Relaxing with the Philharmonic

This weekend’s Colorado Springs Philharmonic concert is balm for hearts that are tired of winter.

The program of two Bach Brandenburg Concertos and Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 for Small Orchestra isn’t the season’s deepest music, its most uplifting, or its most exotic. It’s simply very beautiful and extraordinarily pleasant, and the smaller-than-usual ensemble performs it with flair and style.

Well, maybe not always with style, though the liberties conductor Lawrence Leighton Smith takes with Bach never do harm to the music. The dynamics ebbed and flowed on Saturday night, and the small rhythmic adjustments helped the musical structure emerge out of Bach’s nearly seamless textures. It’s arguably anachronistic, but it helped blow the dust off pieces that, for many classical music lovers, have been dulled by familiarity.

In Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, a dozen string players and a harpsichordist got a satisfyingly rich sound, due partly to Bach’s intricate writing and partly to First United Methodist Church’s friendly acoustics. The concerto is a joyful affair: The strong dance rhythms sweep you along, and Bach’s inventiveness never flags as the musicians pass around the short motives.

Smith’s innovation was his addition of a slow movement to the concerto. Bach wrote only a brief transitional phrase between the two fast movements; Smith expanded on this by adding some more Bach — a transposed portion of the E-flat minor Prelude from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. It was a lovely touch that gave the audience a welcome opportunity to catch its breath.

In the larger and even better-known Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, Bach augments the string orchestra with solo parts for violin, flute and harpsichord — performed here by Michael Hanson, Paul Nagem and Kelly McSweeney Zuercher, respectively.

The same imitative writing that works so well for ensembles poses a challenge to soloists: They could easily be reduced to mere cogs in a machine. Hanson, Nagem and Zuercher avoided this pitfall by each retaining an individual presence. Hanson’s lively playing pleasantly contrasted with Nagem’s smoother approach, and both complemented Zuercher’s more dramatic style. They even played different ornaments.

As good as Nagem and Hanson were, they were overshadowed by Zuercher, who brought marvelous intensity to the first movement’s famous cadenza. Since the harpsichord is incapable of the sorts of dynamic transitions pianists take for granted, Zuercher accomplished this almost entirely through rhythm. I wanted to applaud before the movement ended.

After the small group that performed Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, the not-so-small group in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 sounded impressive indeed. And after that, the small orchestra Brahms calls for in his Serenade — 29 players, I think — seemed almost ear-splitting, despite the absence of trumpets, percussion, or even violins.

This piece shows Brahms in a relaxed and usually genial mood. (He’s still super-smart, though — keep an ear out for the finale’s canon in thirds.) The orchestration is warm and mellow. The highlight is the hypnotic slow movement, a sad song too beautiful to end.

Nearly all the woodwind and French horn players get a chance to shine in this piece. But the first oboe is especially important, and Guy Dutra-Silveira always did the music proud.

The concert’s only disappointing aspect was the size of the crowd: It didn’t come close to filling First United Methodist Church. When people won’t fill a hall for a program like this — gorgeous music, inexpensive tickets, an accessible venue with fine acoustics, topped off with the first decent weather in weeks — it may be time to worry about the future of professional symphonic music in Colorado Springs.

The program will be repeated at 2:30 p.m. today (Sunday, Feb. 11) at First United Methodist Church, 420 N. Nevada Avenue. Tickets are $20, available at the door or by calling 520-7469. For more information visit the philharmonic’s website.


Post a Comment

<< Home