BachSoc’s Tribute to the Romantics

Last Friday, the Bach Society Orchestra (BachSoc) filled Sanders Theatre with the 19th-century sounds of its third seasonal concert, exchanging the stage of Paine Hall for Harvard’s most daunting performance space. Despite appearing small in their new surroundings, the chamber orchestra proved themselves quite at home. BachSoc provided dynamic and engaging renditions of three highly challenging pieces that consistently compelled and only occasionally revealed some orchestral weaknesses.

Friday’s performance held extra significance as it was dubbed “A Concert to Benefit the Victims of the Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan.” With 50 percent of the profits going directly to the Red Cross relief effort in Japan and “Harvard for Japan” booths lining the entrance hall to collect further donations, the concert was an admirable gesture of support for Japan in a time of crisis.

The concert began with a performance of German composer Felix Mendelssohn’s “Overture to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ Op. 21” that effectively captured the delicacy and excitement of its namesake to usher the audience into the mysterious world of Romanticism. Appropriately, the orchestra infused the piece with a sense of magic and playfulness. The violins displayed excellent dynamic control under the baton of music director Yuga J. Cohler ’11, while the remainder of the orchestra darted in and out with contrapuntal interruptions. All in all, the piece proved to be a short and exciting display of the orchestra’s mastery of textural contrast. Other than some egregious intonation problems in the horns, the piece danced away without misstep.

For the second piece, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Concerto for Violin in D Major, Op. 35,” the violins welcomed soloist Ryu Goto ’11, a Physics concentrator with a long list of professional achievements including performances in many of the world’s most renowned concert halls, as well as recordings for Deutsche Grammophon Records. From his first notes, Goto brought forth a dark and expressive tone, navigating demanding technical runs and passages of affective lyricism with equal adeptness. His cadenza in the first movement was an awe-inspiring series of attacks and textures that displayed mastery of every mood and register of the violin in alternating aggressively stabs and soft caresses of the strings. The Tchaikovsky concerto served as the perfect vehicle for Goto’s tremendous talent; despite the fact that the piece had originally been deemed “unplayable” by fin-de-siècle violin virtuoso Leopold Auer, Goto’s rendition sounded effortless, and, other than one accidental screech, flawless. His instant standing ovation was much deserved.

The orchestra behind Goto provided responsive and controlled accompaniment, although it was marred by some inconsistencies. The orchestra unobtrusively supported Goto for much of the first two movements while conserving its energy for the sudden crescendo that signals the start of the finale, a leap executed so tremendously that several in the audience physically recoiled. As one of the loudest moments thus far, the concerto’s finale silenced all doubts about the small orchestra’s ability to fill the cavernous Sanders Theatre: they delivered a gigantic sound. However, they faltered somewhat during softer passages, sounding uncomfortably heterogeneous, especially with the intrusion of occasional blips by the horns. Tchaikovsky’s intriciate tempo changes also presented identifiable difficulty for the orchestra—sometimes Goto would establish a new tempo but several bars would ensue before the orchestra comfortably caught up.

Concluding the concert on a predictable note, BachSoc performed an expressive rendition of Brahms’s “Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73.” Though the piece is undoubtedly a gorgeous study in Romantic lyricism and Brahmsian thematic development, perhaps the selection would have proved more exciting in a less typical program. After all, if one notes the life spans of these three composers—1809-1847 for Mendelssohn, 1840-1893 for Tchaikovsky, and 1833-1897 for Brahms—it is immediately evident that BachSoc developed a focused program at the expense of temporal variety. Despite the orchestra’s masterful rendition, a work from the orchestra’s namesake would have been greatly welcomed by the concert’s end.

Organizational considerations aside, the Brahms Symphony flowed smoothly, with Cohler displaying masterful attention to dynamic nuance. Once again, this piece called for a variety of tempi and textures—demands that the orchestra met beautifully despite a few shaky instances of orchestral disunity. The highlight of the symphony was the daintily dancing third movement, the woodwind section displaying an articulation that echoed their delicate precision in the earlier Mendelssohn. As the last notes resounded through Sanders Theatre, it was evident that BachSoc had delivered an enjoyable and often outstanding evening of music, its flaws rarely outshining a presentation fit for Harvard’s most magnificent stage.

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