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Bachfest by Vox Ama Deus at the PerelmanBY: Tom Purdom 02.09.2010
Valentin Radu’s idiosyncratic personal vision shapes a winter Bachfest at “Castle Perelman.”
Vox Ama Deus Bachfest. Bach, Second and Fourth Brandenburg Concertos; Orchestra Suite No. 1 in C; Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D. Camerata Ama Deus Baroque Instrument Orchestra; Valentin Radu, conductor. Elin Frazier, trumpet; Colin St. Martin and Steven Zohn, flutes; Sarah Davol, oboe; Thomas DiSarlo, violin. February 5, 2010 at the Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Sts.(610) 688.2800 or www.VoxAmaDeus.org.
Bach: One conductor’s visionTOM PURDOM
The Vox Ama Deus Bachfest at the Perelman opened with a talk by trumpeter Elin Frazier, who discussed the history of her instrument with demonstrations that included the haunting sound of the conch shell trumpet and the Hebrew shofar.
I’ve heard Frazier give this talk before, and it’s always informative and amusing. You can make a trumpet out of anything, she argues. And she proved it by playing reveille on a shower hose with a mouthpiece at one end and a showerhead at the other.
The trumpet’s essential components, Frazier said, are a tube, a mouthpiece and a bell (the shower head in her bathtub contraption). Her catalogue covers all the physical requirements but omits the most important attachment: a master trumpeter.
Frazier’s rich, brilliant trumpet created the foundation for the sound of the instrumental quartet that leads the action in the program opener, Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto. Her three partners all made first-class contributions, but the trumpet creates the distinctive sound that permeates the concerto.
We often talk about the composer’s intentions when we discuss music, but the performer’s intentions can be just as relevant. The Vox Ama Deus conductor, Valentin Radu, discussed his attitudes toward Bach’s music at some length in the program notes, and Radu’s personal, highly individual vision shaped the entire evening.
Radu sees the Brandenburg Concertos and the orchestral suites as works created for sophisticated court musicales, and Frazier’s tour de force with historical trumpets helped create the atmosphere of the “Castle Perelman” Radu referred to in his good-natured opening remarks. He sees the suites as lighter, more accessible pieces, compared to the contrapuntal complexities of the Brandenburgs, and Radu’s treatment of the two halves of the program reflected that attitude.
His first-half selections, the Second and Fourth Brandenburgs, are both works in which Bach’s interacting musical lines are linked to strong contrasts in tone color. In the Second Brandenburg, Bach pits the orchestra against a flute, oboe, violin and trumpet quartet. In the Fourth, the lead combo is a trio composed of a violin and two flutes. The individual voices in the combos interact with each other, in addition to their interactions with the orchestra, and the contrasting instrumental voices create a tapestry with bright, easily distinguishable threads.
Radu led the Fourth at a slower pace than the breakneck tempos I tend to favor. His Fourth didn’t stimulate my foot tapping impulses, but it gave you a better look at Bach’s interacting lines. Radu moved through the landscape at a slower pace and gave you time to observe the details.
Radu assigned the flute parts in the Fourth to wooden Baroque flutes. They’re usually played by recorders in period instrument performances like this one, but I couldn’t hear any significant differences.
Spotlight on suites
In the second half, Radu turned to the first and fourth suites. The suites can seem dull compared to the dash of the Brandenburgs, but Radu sidestepped that danger by emphasizing their kinship with concertos.
The Brandenburgs are high-style examples of the concerto grosso— the Baroque form that exploited the contrast between an orchestra and a small group of soloists. The suites are considered orchestral pieces, not concertos, but they do, in fact, feature lead instrumental groups. Oboes and a bassoon occupy the front of the stage in the First Suite, and the Fourth Suite spotlights the unique sound of three oboes.
Not so bland
Many performances with modern instruments play down this aspect of the suites and create smooth, somewhat bland textures. Radu emphasized it and added a complexity that turned them into lively, colorful companions to the Brandenburgs.
All the soloists handled their parts with distinction, but I was particularly impressed with Colin St. Martin’s clear, pure flute work in the second Brandenburg and the throaty sound of the Baroque timpani played by Randall Rudolph in the Fourth Suite.
Castle Perelman provided a warm, glowing den during the first hours of the second biggest snowstorm in Philadelphia history— even if the lord of the manor couldn’t resist reminding us that our current weather would be routine in his native Romania.
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