BWW Review: ORCHESTRA OF ST. LUKE'S at Carnegie Hall with Beatrice Rana, piano
At first glance, pairing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelssohn might seem to be an unusual feat of programming. A Baroque composer, albeit the most important of his time (or of all time, as many are of the opinion) on the same program as a Romantic composer, one of the plethora of musical innovators of the 19th century? How could such music possibly be of interest? As it turns out, very few people would have known about the former without the promotion of the latter. Knowing this, the pairing makes perfect sense and the link becomes clear.
Bach's extraordinarily large and varied musical output was largely unknown outside of Germany during his lifetime, and after his death much of it fell into the "old-fashioned" category due in part to the emergence of the more streamlined music of the Classical era. Bach's music was complex and not easy to learn or understand in comparison to the "new" music of the early 18th century. Although other major musicians knew and studied his compositions, and although a few of his sons were composers and musicians, most of J.S. Bach's music was rarely if ever heard after 1750.
Until 1823, when the young Mendelssohn was gifted with a copy of Bach's great oratorio, the St.Matthew Passion. Mendelssohn was so taken with it he knew someday he'd perform it. And that's exactly what he did in 1829, leading the world into rediscovering the glory that was the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) were the featured composers on the series opener for the Orchestra of St. Lukes (OSL) on October 17, 2019 at Carnegie Hall. Principal Conductor Bernard Labadie capably and sensitively led his approximately fifty musicians in an evening of contrasting, rather stunning music. Bracketed by the music of Mendelssohn, the orchestra was joined by the up-and-coming young Italian pianist Beatrice Rana for two of Bach's keyboard concerti.
Coming from a well-to-do family, Mendelssohn was expected, as most young gentlemen of means were expected, to make a Grand Tour of Europe and the countries of Great Britain when formal education was at an end. Knowing his parents to be fond of the works of Sir Walter Scott, Mendelssohn and a friend decided to visit Scotland. This visit became the inspiration for the first work on the program, the Hebrides Overture (also known as "Fingal's Cave"). Maestro Labadie and the orchestra plunged headfirst into this episodic, epic and exciting tone poem, creating vivid musical pictures of the wild Scottish coast. The difficult clarinet solo in the final section was cheerfully and accurately performed by Principal Clarinet Jon Manasse.
As a young man, Mendelssohn was not completely ignorant of the music of J.S. Bach. The seven keyboard concerti were championed by Mendelssohn's great-aunt Sarah Levy, a harpsichord virtuoso who inspired both Felix and his sister Fannie to learn them. The piano as we know it today was in its technological infancy in the 1840s, but it still provided more volume of sound than the harpsichord. For this concert, Beatrice Rana took charge of the two concerti, beginning with the keyboard concerto in D minor, BWV 1052, and after intermission, the concerto in F minor, BWV 1056. The winds and percussion had the rare opportunity to sit out and simply enjoy these two pieces, which are scored for string orchestra and keyboard.
Ms. Rana's steely fingers played all 8'11" of the Steinway piano as though it were a (much shorter) harpsichord, getting a huge, well-articulated sound that did not diminish or overwhelm the strings in the least. Every member of the ensemble was committed and engaged, providing just the right amount of support for Ms. Rana. Maestro Labadie created a firm bed of sound for Ms. Rana's energized playing. In using a modern piano equipped with the ability to demonstrate the full spectrum of soft and loud sounds instead of a single-volume harpsichord, Ms. Rana was able to use dynamics to help shape the musical line. There was judicious use of the damper pedal which never blurred scale-like passages. Ms. Rana is becoming a noted Bach interpreter, and did not indulge in an overly Romantic (and inappropriate) performing style. Correct performance practice is a hallmark of Maestro Labadie's approach to Baroque music, which was solidly evident here.
Ms. Rana gave a charmingly played, brief encore; the Gigue from Bach's Partita No.1 in B flat major BWV 825. It was the cherry on top of the sundae.
The concluding work on the program was Mendelssohn's Symphony #3 in A minor Op.56, "Scottish." This symphony, also inspired by Mendelssohn's three weeks in Scotland, is a musical evocation of the harsh, blustery land tempered with joyous folk dance-like passages. It was a real pleasure to not only hear this marvelous orchestra but to watch the musicians as well. Many were smiling while they played, their enjoyment of the music being most obvious. There is a noticeable rapport between players and conductor, all completely engaged in making this thrilling music. Long may they continue.
The next concert in the OSL series will be Thursday February 6, 2020 with works by Georg Frederich Handel and Antonio Vivaldi, followed by their final concert on Thursday March 5, 2020 honoring the 250th birthday year of Ludwig van Beethoven. For more information and tickets, call CarnegieCharge at 212-247-7800.