Rubin Institute Review: Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Nov. 7 2014

Recently, NPR Soundcheck’s “Tough Critics” web series asked three grade schoolers for opinions on Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The verdict was unanimous disdain. “It’s what they play in cartoons when the character gets really rich, and they show them drinking wine with their pinky out,” explained one boy.

Perhaps those kids should have heard Bach as played by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra at Calvary Presbyterian Church on Friday evening. Conductor Julian Wachner combined kinetic vigor with childlike elan to lead a program of Bach, Telemann, and Handel for his debut concert with the ensemble. Under full house lights, stripped of all hushed and dignified pretensions associated with Baroque music, the result was an unabashedly joyful noise.

Special guest Andreas Scholl proved himself equally at home in the worlds of the sacred and the secular, singing three Handel arias and Bach’s Cantata No. 170 with the ensemble.  Though the countertenor clearly has the voltage to send his voice soaring to the highest balcony of the Metropolitan Opera, his mien was wholly conversational for this intimate performance. “Dov’e sei?” from Rodelinda expressed a heavy heart through a voice like a feather on a breeze. “Va, tacito” from Giulio Cesare was a secret told to a friend accompanied with just the right amount of swagger, rather than the grand proclamation necessary at a larger venue. His tone rang clearer than the aria’s hunting horns, which consistently had to hunt too long for pitches. “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Serse was Scholl’s well-deserved encore, and each unadorned long note hit like a velvet-tipped arrow to the gut.

 Wachner extracted full potential energy from the scores, unwrapping each phrase and deftly battling the acoustics of the hall, which at times briefly swallowed the lower end. In Telemann’s Concerto in F Major for Violin, Oboe and Two Horns, Phoebe Carrai’s wild violoncello interpolations set feet tapping and heads bobbing. Principal oboist Gonzalo Ruiz made the piece’s fiery trills and peregrinations up and down the scale sound as effortless as a wild swan’s flight on a summer day.

The program’s final selection, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, sparked with vitality. Its few rough edges were easily forgivable and forgettable in light of its spirited stringwork and sweet wind chorales. If Soundcheck’s young critic had attended, he undoubtedly would agree that all pinkies in this rustic Brandenburg were firmly tucked in.

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