Bach’s earthy and ethereal sides were both showcased in the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra’s blockbuster Brandenburg Project on Saturday.
All six of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos were delivered in their entirety by RDSO musicians and guest artists in a behemoth 2 3/4-hour concert at the Red Deer College Arts Centre. In chamber groupings of seven to 13 players, the virtuosic musicians performed the first three concertos on modern instruments, then switched to period instruments for the last three. And the effect was fairly breathtaking — with a couple of humorous exceptions.
While many of Bach’s musical passages are so transcendingly beautiful they sound as if they came straight from the divine, the composer was actually a working stiff who had to feed a growing family. He had no compunction about working things to his benefit when possible — and his shameless promotional side could also be glimpsed during the performance.
RDSO music director Claude Lapalme cannily used Bach’s most ear-candy-ish concertos to open both halves of the program and to close the show.
The evening started with the stately strains of Concerto No. 3, featuring solo violinist Diane Lane and violist Dean O’Brien. The gorgeous and familiar work has a fast-moving first movement, switching to a slower second with a fluttery melody reminiscent of a lifting cloud of butterflies. The exuberant strings players helped close the concerto in high spirits. The delightful Concerto No. 2, which was the theme of William Buckley’s Firing Line program, contains one of the most daunting trumpet solos ever written. But the oscillating melody line was wonderfully carried by RDSO trumpeter Richard Scholz, whose strain only showed in his rising cheek colour. With trilling flute, this concerto seemed to herald springtime.
The first half of the program closed with Bach’s longest and largest Concerto No. 1, featuring solo violinist Diane Lane and oboist Melody McKnight. It began as a counterpoint between strings and woodwinds. Each “sang” in a different, complementary voice, showcasing Bach’s flourish for spotlighting various instruments.
The period instruments used in the second half of the program produced more rounded, mellow sounds. This required that a harpsichord tuned to a lower register be brought in for player Wendy Markosky, one of the gifted soloists on Concerto No. 5, along with flutist Lucie Jones and violinist Naomi Delafield.
The first movement seemed breezy and familiar — until Markosky began a difficult harpsichord solo that comically went on and on. Lapalme mentioned in the program notes that the “ludicrously lengthy cadenza” was thought to have been penned to show off Bach’s own harpsichord skills. One could imagine a sign slowly being lowered behind the original orchestra: “Call Bach for all your harpsichording needs.”
More shenanigans were heard in Concerto No. 6. It featured soloists O’Brien and Ronelle Schaufele playing a rather complicated, circular melody on violas, while two players on viola de gambas (period instruments resembling slightly smaller cellos) performed very simple background strains.
Apparently, the plodding de gamba parts were written because Bach’s wealthy patron, Prince Leopold, was an amateur de gamba player and wanted to join the orchestra. Bach obligingly wrote him a part he could manage.
The evening wrapped with Concerto No. 4, another favourite. It featured some amazing violin playing from brilliant soloist Delafield, who put her whole body into creating the soulful, stirring, and ultimately exuberant sounds.
As well, Terri Hron and Gerard Gibbs used recorders to give the work a distinctive, lute-like, Renaissance feel.
The sell-out crowd rewarded the remarkable effort of all the musicians with a standing ovation. Although Lapalme suggested this all-Bach concert might mean the RDSO takes a break from the composer’s works for a while, there just might be no such thing as Bach overload.