Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Looking forward and back, with Bach

Daniel Stepner in action.

Last weekend's "Bach Portrait" concert at Handel and Haydn felt like the last step in what has been a year of transition for the venerable Society. New Artistic Director Harry Christophers was at the podium, conducting (in his inimitable style) an evening's worth of music from a composer not often heard at H&H of late. And at the same time, the widely-admired Daniel Stepner took his last bow as concertmaster (after 24 years in the role) with performances of the Brandenburg No. 5 and the Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins (BWV 1043).

In a way, therefore, the concert was somehow Janus-like in its profile, as it offered a perspective on the Society's past as well as its future. For many H&H subscribers, I imagine Stepner's farewell stole focus from the rest of the program; certainly his appearances brought the most sustained and affectionate applause. But the best music-making of the night actually came when Christophers was front and center, conducting two Bach cantatas with a brilliance and precision that reminded me once again why, exactly, he got the job.

I should add, of course, that for this listener, the Bach cantatas (No. 50 and No. 29) benefitted from the fact that they're unfamiliar (or at least No. 50 was, I was acquainted with the first movement of No. 29), and there's really nothing like encountering fantastic pieces of music for the first time in performances this damn good. It occurred to me that the cantata may be the form in which Christophers shines the brightest; he's a superb early music conductor who is also a former professional singer, so in this kind of music he's a double threat, and seems to attend to every detail in both orchestra and chorus.

Cantata No. 50, "Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft," is almost amusingly short - a beautiful blast of triumph (the title translates as "Now is come salvation and strength") that H&H brought off with both power and delicacy. The larger, more ambitious No. 29 ("Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir") opened with a glittering sinfonia (with chorusmaster John Finney tearing through a dazzling obliggato organ line) which led into a gorgeous set of arias and recitatives. The chorus sounded superb in its contributions, but the soloists drawn from its ranks were a bit variable; best were soprano Lydia Brotherton, who sang with light but pure tone, and especially bass-baritone Bradford Gleim, whom I haven't heard showcased at H&H before, but who is definitely someone to watch. Or rather hear.

The two motets on offer made solid, but less striking, impressions. The opening No. 1, "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied" seemed not quite as crisp as its intricacy required, while No. 2, "Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf," was simply appropriately poignant (it was written for the funeral of the rector of Bach's place of employment, the famous Thomasschule in Liepzig).

The Stepner "half" of the program was likewise lovely - but the respectives beauties of Brandenburg No. 5 and the Concerto for Two Violins are both very familiar, of course, and Stepner and company didn't really have any interpretive surprises up their sleeves; this was intended as a last night of music-making among friends, and it charmed in that context. Keyboardist Finney actually stole the show in the Brandenburg, by once again catching fire in the concerto's famously difficult (and surprisingly chromatic) harpsichord solo; but to tell true, spaces the size of Symphony Hall weren't built with the harpsichord in mind, and I almost wished I might have heard Finney's virtuosity in closer quarters.

Sentiment ran highest during the Concerto for Two Violins, in which Stepner led the ensemble with violinist Linda Quan, with whom he has long shared a beautiful musical partnership on the H&H stage. The high point of their performance was the concerto's haunting second movement, in which the two violins intertwine in something easily construed as mutual sympathy and admiration. A feeling obviously shared by Stepner's many fans in the audience, who rose to their feet at the concerto's close in a heartfelt standing "o."