Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Two worlds of J.S. Bach are sketched in Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra concert

The marketing image Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra has associated with "J.S. Bach: Sacred and Secular, Vocal and Instrumental" is a good deal jazzier than that sober concert title.

J.S. Bach: Baroque dude
It's worth noting that the composer's artistic profile finds more consistent expression across the sacred-secular divide than the jarring superimposition of shades, stingy-brim hat and hipster facial hair on his image suggests. But contemporary marketing follows its own laws, and if it can attract more people to two repeat performances elsewhere of Monday night's program at the University of Indianapolis, more power to it.

The 11-piece ensemble, exuding neatly deployed energy and refinement throughout, was led by its artistic director, Dutch-born early-music flute virtuoso Barthold Kuijken, who was also soloist in three of the four works.

The program's centerpiece for exhibiting the skills of both Kuijken and the band is the Orchestral Suite in B minor, the most sparingly orchestrated of Bach's four ensemble suites on the French model: solo flute, strings, and continuo are displayed across seven movements. An elaborate opening "Ouverture" is succeeded by shorter dance movements, in this case ending with the charming "Badinerie."

Monday's performance of that finale was cheerful, but a little staid. If any piece of music illustrates the "lighter and more humorous way of thought" Bach was capable of (according to an obituary quoted in the program), it's this movement, which goes over best when it sounds more playful.

Overall, the suite was quite attractively, if sedately, performed. Particularly admirable were the phrasing and balance of the Sarabande, and the slight billowing to the dynamics that enlivened the slow dance. The Ouverture showed immediately the rapport between Kuijken and the ensemble in tempo shifts as well as the clarity of all instrumental voices.

Augusta McKay Lodge is a master's candidate at IU.
Secular pieces dominate the program — no surprise considering that the presenter is an orchestral organization; Bach's religious music, with exceptions like the organ chorale preludes, requires singers. The most satisfying such piece Monday night was the Violin Concerto in A minor, with Augusta McKay Lodge, winner of the IBO's 2014 concerto competition, as soloist. Apart from a burble in the first movement, her performance was outstanding: animated, well-ornamented, radiantly in tune. Her evenness of phrasing, with no drooping at the ends, was particularly commendable in the Andante.

That contrasted with the concert's vocal soloist, soprano Julianne Baird, whose phrases tended to swell and fade internally and sometimes go into hiding at the ends in the sublime cantata "Ich habe genug" (with Kuijken's flute playing the oboe obbligato). In the first recitative, she often sounded breathy, as though she were conveying a secret rather than proclaiming sturdy faith in the expectation of heavenly reward.

There was no fading in the second recitative, fortunately, and the concluding aria indicated that her passagework was accurate and her intonation sound. But the hide-and-seek projection of the text was disconcerting: In a line like "Hier muss ich das Elend bauen" (here I must build, or cultivate, misery), for example, you don't want the word "bauen" to vanish (as it did), because the line is such a striking image of the text's world-weariness. To be condemned to grow a crop of misery — what a fate! We want to hear about it — sustain those phrases, please.

The program's novelty, the secular Italian cantata "Non sa che sia dolore," returned Baird to the stage, where both the pluses and minuses of her "Ich habe genug" performance were evident. From the opening Sinfonia on, the piece was indeed striking for what Kuijken's program note called its "very progressive Italianate style." The Vivaldian colors, lavish decorative writing for flute and voice, and the tone painting (especially in the final aria's supple rhythmic evocation of a boat gently rocking on the waves) indeed revealed an uncharacteristic side of Bach, if not one quite captured by that retro-Blues-Brothers poster image.

The program will be repeated at Franklin College on Wednesday and Indiana Landmarks Center Thursday. See the IBO website for details.

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