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A Farewell Concert

The Bach Society Orchestra Last Sunday at Paine Hall

By Kenneth Hoffman

SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO the Bach Society was organized to perforn chamber music primarily of the eighteenth century. Over the years their emphasis and preference have drifted to other styles. Last Sunday afternoon they showed themselves to be best at the music for which they were originally formed. The closing work of their program, the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, is often considered the finest example of concerto grosso writing. More often than not, its balance of concertino and ripieno forces is distorted to the point that the harpsichord and flute are never heard, the oboe, rarely, and the trumpet always.

Conducting from the harpsichord, Nils Vigeland led a well-balanced ensemble hampered only by the harpsichord's small size. Of the four upper-voice players, violinist Lynn Chang and flutist John Thow showed fine technique with sensitive dynamics and phrasing. Thow's playing had the kind of edge necessary for a flute set against such dense counterpoint provided by the more powerful instruments.

The Second Brandenburg used to be done as something of a trumpet concerto. Mercifully, this custom has passed; but the instrument's construction--producing a high, searing tone--give the trumpet a dominant role in the piece. Playing the piccolo trumpet. Robert Hazen noticeably tired in the final allegro, missing some high notes altogether and parts from sixteenth-note sequences. In the first movement, though, he was in much better from with a beautifully quiet tone that blended well with flute, oboe, and strings. peter Weiss played oboe unevenly: he was not sensitive to the dynamics of the other players, and he occasionally made subordinate parts far too loud.

The sense of ensemble among the players was extraordinary. Vigeland did not conduct (in a hand-waving sense) once through all three movements. The attention given to the continuo part by cellist David Simpson was a pleasure to hear. Far too often the bass line is simply grunted out by bored, inattentive players who can ruin the most stunning effects of soloists.

NONE OF THE other pieces even approached the Bach. A Muzio Clementi Symphony in B-flat was simply poor music with exposed transitions and bridges (where they existed), trite sequences, and general harmonic and melodic poverty. Typical was an inane arpeggiated triad figure used as melody in the first movement. At least the bubbly rococo confusion of sound obscured the meagre content of the fast movements; absolutely nothing could save the andante.

Throughout this year Vigeland's programming has been the major attraction of the Bach Society. Beginning the concert with four string Fantasias and two In Nomines by Henry Purcell, Vigeland then presented seven more In Nomines by Peter Maxwell Davies, composed nearly 300 years after the Purcell. This type of juxtaposition is tremendously effective and could well be used in many more instances.

The Purcell pieces have a mysterious air to them and yet are curiously dull. The playing, by various members of the string sections, was more spirited than usual for these works. Simpson's cello playing was especially sensitive and powerful, coaxing a wonderful resonance from the instrument. When the fantasias are done by viols, the blend of sound can be excruciatingly monotonous. At the same time, there are advantages to original instruments: a viola da gamba's tuning is different from a cello's and the notes it plays on open strings can change the shading of tonality greatly.

The most unusual pieces were the Davies In Nomines. They ranged from the most conservative (scarcely discernible from Purcell's style) to the far more exotic. The fifth one was a screeching duet of violin and clarinet whose tessitura was in no way balanced by the later addition of piccolo. The players maintained a remarkable faithfulness to pitch, extremely difficult in view of the ranges they were forced into. The fourth In Nomine was a beautiful Debussy-like flute and harp duet over viola and cello accompaniment.

The tiny (under 50) audience in Paine Hall was not overly impressed with the program. The playing was consistently very good, but except for the Bach, the pieces were neither exciting nor moving. Perhaps it is about time; Vigeland's work with the Bach Society has been so successful this year that he was due a mistake. Whether next year's conductor Robert Baker keeps up the new trend towards innovation with excellence will be an intriguing question.

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