BachSoc Redeems In Sixth Symphony

After a shaky start, BachSoc finds its bearings in its closing piece 'Pastorale'

Paine Hall features the names of prominent composers embossed in bright gold letters stretched across the hall, and although they are ordered chronologically, one cannot help but notice that “BEETHOVEN” is strategically placed up, front, and center as a testament to his historical impact on classical music.

The Bach Society Orchestra’s (BachSoc) concert on Friday, April 28 was of a similar vein, sandwiching J.S. Bach’s Cantata “Nimm was dein ist” between Beethoven’s Overture to Coriolanus, which describes a Roman exile leading an attack on the democracy of Rome, and his Sixth Symphony, which features idyllic pastures.

The concert opened with a new face under the new Music Director-elect Aram V. Demirjian ’08.

Demirjian brought clear and graceful command to the podium, although the orchestra was not always able to match his elegance.

The beginning of the overture was riddled with intonation errors in the winds and strings, and minor pitch errors continued to plague the violins for the remainder of the concert.

The cross-stage seating that typically allows the first and second violins to enhance the excitement of the piece by exchanging musical barbs was not highly effective due to a slightly anemic second violin section. Demirjian’s conducting was fluid and varied, well capturing the tangled emotions of the overture.

Bach’s Cantata “Nimm was dein ist” featured The Choral Fellows of Harvard University Choir and was a refreshing programming choice that provided levity from the heavy Romantic program.

The intimacy and rich acoustics of Paine Hall helped recreate the environment of a church service, and the Cantata demonstrated the versatility of the chamber orchestra to transition from bombastic overture to lighter Baroque church music.

Music Director Daniel W. Chetel ’06, conducting his last concert with BachSoc, demonstrated a strong stage presence and was most at ease conducting the chorale movements, featuring superbly blended choir and orchestra.

In solo sections, however, the strings were slightly too thick, using Romantic strokes that were most problematic when their texture covered alto Melinda N. Biocchi’s ’08 nuanced performance. Although the tenor recitative seemed rushed, soprano Kathy D. Gerlach’s ’07 pellucid aria rounded out the performance.

After intermission, General Managers Matthew W. Smith ’07 and James P. Ferus ’07 waxed sentimental, presenting roses to BachSoc’s graduating seniors and thanking them for being “the best teammates.”

Ferus also acknowledged Smith, who is stepping down after serving three years as general manager, for his ability to enthuse the orchestra.

Despite the shortcomings of the first half, the highlight of the evening was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastorale,” and the orchestra’s earlier difficulties were evaporated by a renewed confidence.

Written in 1808 simultaneously with the Fifth Symphony, the “Pastorale” was poorly received at its premiere due to its lack of the Fifth’s fire, but BachSoc’s performance was a testament to Beethoven’s beautiful lyrical writing describing the countryside.

The third movement’s revelry featured particularly notable solos by bassoonist David L. Richmond ’06 and clarinetist Alex M. Brash ’06, and heightened the pizzazz of the “Merry Gathering of Countryfolk.”

The fourth movement’s “Thunderstorm” was the most convincing with its crisp brass pronouncements of thunder and windy string runs.

Although at some points the strings were swallowed up in the tumultuous storm, the orchestra’s evocative performance was truly powerful.

Although it is nearly 200 years old, the “Pastorale” felt fresh and vibrant, confirming Beethoven’s continuing relevance above the stage in Paine Hall and demonstrated that classical music is certainly well and alive at Harvard.

After what began as a weak first half, BachSoc was able to work itself to an impressive closing piece. The evening closed with a standing ovation for Chetel and BachSoc for a concert and season well played.