THE NEW BACH Society Orchestra is nothing like the old one, as last Saturday's concert readily proved. We've seen, at least for this year, the last of the showman's concerts, replete with publicity gimmicks and histrionic conducting, and the first of the music-lover's concerts, which stand firmly on its own musical integrity. It's easy to prophesy that this year the Bach Society will deliver some of its finest concerts ever.
Hugh Wolff made his debut as the new conductor, and ingeniously elicited the most sensitive performance I have heard from the Bach Society Orchestra. He was lucky to be conducting a select group of talented musicians--who were attracted to the Society in the first place by his reputation and his fresh, enterprising programming. This year's concerts will include works of Bach, Beethoven, Ravel, Mahler and Stravinsky.
Saturday evening began with Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune, a liquid-sounding piece that flows in one continuous sweep. Wolff's interpretation evoked a number of mesmerizing images. However, the performance did not swell and gradually overflow in its fullness from one section to the next, but rather began de novo each time new instruments were signalled to play.
The true test of the Orchestra's technical ability was in its performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 31 in D. Despite technical difficulties, the music breathed under Wolff's intelligent conducting and the orchestra's spontaneous response to it. So great was the improvement in the string section that it really shouldn't be compared with last year's. Intonation suffered somewhat in the second movement, but the orchestra more than redeemed itself in the third movement fugue, when the theme repeatedly sprang forth in new form and vigor.
Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G completed the concert with half a dozen curtain calls and rounds of applause. Richard Kogan, in his solo performance, achieved a combination of passion and sweetness expressed through an extraordinary technique that no other pianist at Harvard has paralleled. Pianistically, the Fourth Concerto is probably the most difficult of the five Beethoven wrote. But Kogan played the intricate passages of trills and double thirds seemingly without effort, while on a large scale he projected a carefully balanced scheme of dynamics that caught and held the audience's attention. Combined with the grandeur of the piece itself and the orchestra's perfect coordination, this performance was as moving as anything that I've heard.
In short, the new Bach Society remains sophisticated, but it is enthusiastic, too. 'A radical change has taken place; the new Bach Society is alive.