Since 2006, the first season at the Chamber Music Society fully programmed by David and Wu Han, the month of December has provided a multi-concert Baroque Festival for the enjoyment of listeners hungry for celebratory music during the holidays. This year the festival offered not only the annual Baroque Collection program – an eclectic selection of baroque repertoire from across the geographic and stylistic spectrum – but also a stunning recorder program by the Danish virtuoso Michala Petri, and four performances of the Bach’s beloved Brandenburg Concertos.
in David’s words…
“Would they like to have more of it?” was the question we asked back in 2004, when we were told that since 1994, Alice Tully Hall has been sold out every season for two performances of the Brandenburg Concertos. A study of the Society’s first two decades revealed frequent and diverse baroque repertoire appearing throughout the season, and somehow over the years the amount of it had diminished to the point where practically the only baroque works being presented were the Brandenburgs. We decided to resurrect and re-imagine the early CMS tradition of baroque performance by creating the first Baroque Festival in the 2006-07 season, to see if the interest in music of the baroque was actually wider than just the Brandenburgs. Sure enough, it was. The first Baroque Festival sold out and has continued to do so ever since. The festival is now something we can truly call annual (as we called it on faith the first year!) and there seems to be no end to the programming possibilities, or to the audience’s curiosity.
After the pair of Collection concerts on December 4th and 6th, which featured music of Biber, Vivaldi, and many others, we were stunned, along with everyone else, by the much-anticipated debut at CMS of Michala Petri on December 8th. The world’s reigning virtuoso of the recorder performed, flawlessly, a 2+ hour program of some of the most dazzling repertoire we’ve ever heard. Backed by her husband, archlutenist Lars Hannibal, and a small band of CMS musicians, she played recorders of all sizes in music of Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi, Sammartini and others, which brought the sold-out crowd to its feet, demanding encores. In the wings, I greeted violinist Cho-Liang Lin as he came off stage with a stunned look: “I really don’t understand how she does it” said the equally gifted virtuoso of his instrument.
After the concert, Wu Han made a flowery and diplomatic bi-lingual speech in the Hauser Pavilion to a large delegation from the Taiwan embassy which had attended the concert. She introduced CMS Board Chair Peter Frelinghuysen to the dignitaries, who were more than thrilled to see the Taiwan-born Wu Han at the helm of the ship, especially in the Society’s truly glamorous new venue.
The Society’s fall season was brought to a rousing close with four performances of the incomparable Brandenburg Concertos. Composed between 1710 and 1721, Bach assembled them into a set and sent them, with a duly-obsequious dedication, to the Margrave of Brandenburg, in hope of a position of employment. (It can turn one’s stomach to read how someone of Bach’s stature had to grovel in front of royalty in those days.) The Margrave didn’t have the orchestra, nor apparently the intelligence, to realize even one performance of the works, never answered Bach, and put the works in a drawer until they were sold after his death in 1736, for today’s equivalent of $22. What can you say besides “what an idiot!”, or “talk about a missed opportunity!” We can be endlessly thankful that they were not lost, as they have given the world incalculable enjoyment.
Friday the 11th saw the Society’s initial Brandenburg concert at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, or NJPAC, a glorious venue right across the Hudson River in Newark, NJ. Over 1500 people turned out on a freezing night for a stunningly successful first-ever NJPAC performance by CMS. Decorated festively for the holidays, the hall was warm and welcoming, the enormous crowd loudly appreciative, and I doubt it will be long before we return. As we’ve seen in New York, this music is addictive.
Sunday the 13th was a day eagerly waited for, on which we would hear the Brandenburgs in the vibrant acoustics of our newly-renovated Alice Tully Hall. Our expectations were not disappointed: the winds rang clear as bells; the details of harpsichordist John Gibbons’ realizations were beautifully audible; the sonorous bass of Edgar Meyer provided a firm cushion for all; and the golden trumpet of now-five-year Brandenburg veteran David Washburn soared throughout the hall in a blaze of impossibly-high notes that drove the crowd to a frenzy. I do believe that the heightened reaction of the historically reserved CMS audience lately has been due to the fact that in these new acoustics they are simply receiving more music: more volume, more color, more detail, more passion, and they are responding in kind.
The next day, Monday the 13th, we boarded vans for the drive to Princeton, New Jersey, for a return appearance on the McCarter Theater series. Playing to a full house in the University’s Richardson Auditorium is always a pleasure. The hall’s gracious curves provide a sensation of intimacy for a large number of listeners, and the pristine quiet is in part achieved by the fact that this is a hall-within-a-hall, with corridors surrounding the performance space, enclosed by massive stone walls.
The final CMS performance of the fall season took place the following night, Tuesday the 14th, once again in Tully and once again for a completely sold-out hall. As exhausting as these performances had been, there was a palpable sense of sadness amongst us as we finished and said our goodbyes and best wishes for the holidays. “Couldn’t we get together again tomorrow, somewhere?” said cellist Fred Sherry, only half-joking. Off went our amazing new CMS Two cellist Jakob Koranyi, to Frankfurt; CMS founding flutist Paula Robison to Boston; trumpeter David Washburn to Los Angeles; horn player Bill VerMuelen to Houston; and me and Wu Han, after only two hours of sleep, to Taipei, for the next incredible musical adventure in our wonderful lives.