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PBO celebrates Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s 300th birthday with a lively program

Conductor Nicholas MeGagan at work
Conductor Nicholas MeGagan at work
courtesy of Philharmonia Baroque

As I observed yesterday, this coming March 8 will be Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s 300th birthday. To celebrate this occasion, Nicholas McGegan, Music Director of Philharmonia Baroque, prepared a program for the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) featuring three of this “younger” Bach’s compositions, complementing them with a symphony from Joseph Haydn’s years of service at Eszterháza as a concluding selection. That symphony “reflected” the Bach symphony that began the program; and between these two symphonies keyboardists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang (also husband and wife) served as soloists for two Bach keyboard concertos. One could also view the program as one of “generational transition,” since Haydn explicitly acknowledged Emanuel Bach as a major influence on his own efforts as a composer.

One could certainly detect signs of that influence in last night’s PBO performance of the program that McGegan prepared at the SFJAZZ Center. Both composers had a keen sense of the logic of large-scale structure within which listener attention could be seized and maintained through rhetorical devices that would establish and then thwart expectations. They were also both highly economical, often using little more than motivic fragments to unfold entire movements. In addition they both expressed themselves through torrents of energetic passages that could create a feeling on enthusiasm just as positive in the minor mode as in the major.

I make that last point in disagreement with one of McGegan’s observations during his pre-concert talk. He referred to the opening symphony, Wq 178 (“Wq” stands for Alfred Wotquenne, who published the first comprehensive thematic catalog of Bach’s music in 1905), as “dark,” because it is in the key of E minor. While I appreciate the traditional “glad-sad” opposition of the major and minor modes, I have to say that I find the energy of this symphony decidedly positive and upbeat. It may not be of a sanguine temperament, but it is definitely neither choleric nor melancholic. (Phlegmatic is clearly out of the question!)

Bach also had a preference for abrupt conclusions. While it is clear that he learned much about invention from his father, Johann Sebastian, he was less inclined to his father’s “and another thing” conviction that one clever invention always deserves another. The younger Bach tended to appreciate working within an architectural frame; and, when he said what he had to say, he simply closed things off with a perfect cadence. McGegan, for his part, clearly appreciated the younger Bach’s priorities, giving the symphony a performance as clear and crisp as it was energetic.

Like his father, the younger Bach was a master performer at the keyboard. Indeed, he literally wrote the authoritative book on “the true art of playing keyboard instruments” (the words from the English translation of his title), thus complementing in text the four “keyboard practice” books that his father had written, which consisted only of music. Emanuel’s keyboard skills were clearly evident in Levin’s harpsichord performance of his Wq 30 keyboard concerto, another dynamo of positive energy, even if the key happened to be B minor. Levin’s approach to his keyboard was thoroughly spritely, very much in the same enthusiastic spirit that McGegan took to leading the orchestra.

The second concerto on the program provided a clever illustration of the fact that Bach was living in a major period of transition for keyboard music. As I observed yesterday, the eighteenth century was the time when the harpsichord began to decline and the piano began to rise. With his Wq 47 concerto in E-flat major, Bach chose to view this transition from the “point of intersection,” scoring solo parts for both fortepiano (Chuang) and harpsichord (Levin). This is a delightfully entertaining offering for both instruments in which the two soloists spend much of the time echoing each other. (McGegan called the piece a ping-pong game with the orchestra playing the role of the ball.)

Nevertheless, one could appreciate that the piano was in its earliest stages of development. Chuang’s playing offered up a smooth elegance that could not be achieved through the sharp attacks of a harpsichord’s plucked strings, but it was also weaker in dynamic range. To put this concerto in historical perspective, it was composed in 1753; and Henry E. Steinway would be born on February 15, 1797, not building his first square piano until 1835. In 1753 harpsichords, particularly larger models with multiple ranks of strings, and a much stronger sound than any fortepiano and, when endowed with a system of stops, far more diversity in both dynamics and timbre. Thus, through this concerto one could appreciate the critical features of the pivotal time in which Bach was living and working.

If Bach’s music could be appreciated for its abundance of positive energy, Haydn’s symphony put a cap on the evening with its abundance of raucous wit. Each movement had its own particular bag of tricks for eliciting smiles (and probably bursts of laughter) from the listeners at Eszterháza. McGegan himself seems to have been particularly fond of the barnyard sounds combing from the bassoons in the final movement, which he associated with what he called “methane moments.” He also clearly enjoyed telling the audience to avoid trying to tap their feet to the Trio of the Menuetto, lest an ankle get twisted in the process.

Last October McGegan introduced the 33rd Philharmonic Baroque season as a “world tour.” This month the tour visited Emanuel Bach’s Berlin and Haydn’s imperial Vienna. More importantly, however, it was a visit to the eighteenth century as a time of transition, with the traditions of Sebastian Bach at one end and the radically new logic and rhetoric of invention of Ludwig van Beethoven at the other. There was much to be gained from examining the mid-point of that transition, and, with the assistance of Levin, Chuang, and the PBO, McGegan served up that examination in an entertainingly engaging manner.

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