Review: Chamber Music Society

Dec. 16, Holy Comforter Episcopal Church

The six concertos that Johann Sebastian Bach submitted to Christian-Ludwig, the margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, in 1721, are among the most familiar works of baroque music – too familiar, too often treated as background sound in upper-middlebrow settings and circumstances.

A cast of musicians mustered by the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia thrust three of the “Brandenburg” concertos into the foreground, casting them as eventful chamber works rather than as comfy-cozy chamber-orchestra music. With supportive ripeno strings reduced to one-to-a-part, musical textures were markedly more transparent, and solo and concertante voices projected far more prominently.

The “Brandenburgs” framed the premiere of “Palaces of Memory” by Zachary Wadsworth, a Richmond-born composer now based at Williams College in Massachusetts. Wadsworth, who describes the piece as an homage to Bach, sprinkles quotations of several of the master’s works into his composition.

Had copyright laws extended back to the 18th century, “I’d worry about Bach filing an infringement suit,” Wadsworth said in introductory remarks. A class-action suit, maybe, considering the jig à la Handel, a sighing, Zelenka-like wind passage and other bits recalling assorted Bach contemporaries in several not-at-all-neo baroque sections of the piece.

This isn’t a baroque-revival pastiche, though. Rather like one of those European buildings designed in gothic style but over time turned into architectural hybrids as baroque decorative elements and structural appendages were added, Wadsworth’s score is rooted in an austere theme that seems to echo medieval chant; its evocations of Bach, et al., are celebratory interjections in an otherwise contemplative narrative.

Wadsworth said he wrote “Palaces of Memory” to be played on pre-modern instruments, and their individual sounds and collective texture served to emphasize the music’s contrasts of gothic and baroque.

The Chamber Music Society ensemble, whose roster included performers from leading US early music troupes, ordered this sampling of “Brandenburgs” cannily. The program opened with the Concerto No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047, an exuberant work centering on exchanges among trumpet, oboe and recorder. Then the musicians turned to the Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050, probably the best-known and most “orchestral” of the six, with its interplay of violin, flute and harpsichord in outer movements and long, virtuosic harpsichord cadenza in the middle.

Following the Wadsworth premiere, the program closed with the “Brandenburg” that James Wilson, the Chamber Music Society’s artistic director, said is his favorite of the set: The Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049, upbeat but more sparely textured than Nos. 2 and 5, focused on the contrast between a pair of lyrically voiced recorders and an assertive, virtuosic violin.

The concert’s featured virtuosos – trumpeter Mary Bowden in the Concerto No. 2, harpsichordist Carsten Schmidt in No. 5 and violinist Christina Day Martinson in No. 4 – made the most of their moments; but the real stars of these “Brandenburgs” were Bach himself, and a group of musicians audibly intent on bringing out every strand of his musical fabrics and taking every opportunity to play expressively and to complement one another.

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