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Philharmonia Baroque launches a new approach to informing its audience

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Last night at the SFJAZZ Center, Philharmonia Baroque presented the first in an anticipated series of events being called SESSIONS. This is the latest stage in an ongoing effort to acquaint audiences with selections from the Philharmonia Baroque repertoire that are likely to be unfamiliar. The basic idea is to use a span of about 90 minutes to focus on a few selections from a subscription program in the context of an engaging approach to relevant background knowledge.

There was a particular sense of occasion in the subject matter for the “maiden voyage” of this series. The primary focus was on Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, whose 300th birthday will be celebrated this coming March 8. The major thrust to promote interest in Johann Sebastian Bach during the nineteenth century brought about the unfortunate consequence of a neglect of his second surviving son Emanuel. However, during his lifetime and for several decades after his death in 1788, this younger Bach was anything but neglected. He was a great success in his service to Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia (later to be known as Frederick the Great). He then went “into the private sector,” moving to the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, where he cultivated a successful reputation as both a keyboard virtuoso and a composer. In addition, during his service to Frederick he wrote the Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (essay on the true art of playing keyboard instruments), which remains a significant resource for contemporary study.

At last night’s event, Nicholas McGegan, conductor of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO), presented a thoroughly engaging biographical sketch of Emanuel, supplemented with projected images. McGegan appreciates the value of spicing up basic facts by presenting them in a humorous context. Indeed, his comic delivery suggested that he could do as much for the appreciation of early music as Anna Russell had done for Richard Wagner. His “second banana” for this introductory material was keyboardist Robert Levin, who gave an arch channeling of English music historian and chronicler Charles Burney describing Emanuel’s skills at the keyboard.

All this served to introduce a full performance of this younger Bach’s E-flat major concerto for fortepiano and harpsichord (Wq 47) with Levin on harpsichord joined by his wife Ya-Fei Chuang on fortepiano. This nicely illustrated one of the key points of the introductory material, which is that the eighteenth century was the time when the hammer-struck strings of the fortepiano were beginning to displace the plucked strings of the harpsichord. The concerto was thus the composer’s effort to explore the contrast in sonorities by having the two instruments play side-by-side (or, in the case of last night’s layout of the stage, face-to-face).

The remainder of the program was devoted to selections from Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken I/68 symphony in B-flat major. While the front of the stage was busy with the process of moving off the keyboard instruments, KQED announcer Rachael Myrow took her microphone to the rear of the stage to interview Kristin Zoernig. Zoernig has been playing Principal Double Bass in PBO for as long as I have been covering their concerts. Her instrument was made by Joseph Wrent in 1648 Rotterdam, and she provided Myrow with several engaging facts about the instrument’s past performers.

Both McGegan and Levin returned to the front of the stage to set the context for Haydn’s symphony. Levin suggested that one of the reasons that Haydn tends to receive less attention than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is that he was more overt about his sense of humor. That same nineteenth century mentality that chose to prioritize Sebastian Bach over Emmanuel Bach and built such a menacing monument to Ludwig van Beethoven also cultivated a mindset that listening to music should be an experience as solemn as a church service. Haydn’s wit just did not fit into that mold; and, while he remained better known than Emmanuel, he was known through a relatively small fraction of his repertoire.

McGegan, on the other hand, was happy to talk about and demonstrate many of the “belly laugh” moments in the symphony he had selected. He even explained how Haydn had used the rustic qualities of the final movement as an opportunity for barnyard humor. This involved the use of bassoons at the lowest register depicting cows having what McGegan euphemistically called “methane moments.” (I noticed that Kate van Orden had to add a short cardboard tube to the end of her instrument to reach the lowest note that Haydn required.)

All this provided a delightful introduction to tonight’s concert (which will also take place at the SFJAZZ Center), providing more depth than could fit in the usual half-hour pre-concert talk and going into that depth with a style that was entertaining as well as informative. It is also worth noting that this first SESSIONS event played to a full house. The demand for such presentations is clearly there, and it will be interesting to see how the supply keeps up with it.

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