CSO Plays Brandenburg Concertos Review-Kraemer's Lightness Carries it Off

Nicholas Kraemer

Upon entering Orchestra Hall for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of all six of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, it would be hard not to notice the small number of chairs for the musicians. This made it clear before the performance started that Nicholas Kraemer’s vision for using the mammoth forces of the CSO to present these staples of the Baroque repertoire was to whittle the orchestra down to a fraction of its full size and then integrate “period” performance practices.

 

CSO Concertmaster Robert Chen

In a sense, this approach seemed like a stunt from the English maestro, who is used to presenting this music with ensembles like the local Music of the Baroque. Using the CSO (or rather, some of its members) to present these pieces as if they were chamber music may seem like overkill or a waste, but Kraemer’s conception and the players’ execution was compelling. Period performances are, in a sense, a dangerous concept. We can never truly go back to Bach’s or Handel’s time and present these works as they were first performed, but very few people (a notable exception being Theodor Adorno, the 20th century German social critic who wrote extensively on Bach) would argue the period performance movement was a bad thing; ultimately, it rescued Baroque music from over-inflated full orchestral interpretations by superstar conductors.

 

Nicholas Kraemer leads Chicago Symphony Orchestra and soloists

The prospect of hearing all six Brandenburgs in one night is a scary one, like Death by Bach. The six concertos (really a mixture, as Kraemer accurately pointed out to the audience, of chamber, orchestral, and concerto) are immensely popular and often included together for natural reasons on recordings, but one wouldn’t necessarily play them all together in a concert for the same reason you wouldn’t play two Beethoven symphonies: just because they belong to the same collection doesn’t mean you need to present them in one concert.

 

CSO Principal Cello John Sharp

Kraemer, however, anticipated this problem and his presentation of the works was what made the whole thing work. “[The concertos are] easy on the ear because it’s so well-crafted,” said Kraemer in his remarks to the audience, and Kraemer's style valued levity and fast tempos. This approach made the works at times seem insubstantial, but it seemed like a necessary trade-off in order to play all six concertos. Kraemer’s levity seems consistent with his personality; conducting while standing at the harpsichord, the wiry, energetic maestro delighted in creating a sound that was astonishingly well-balanced, easier to achieve without full brass and woodwinds.

 

CSO Violist Catherine Brubaker

The playing of the CSO musicians in this work was another testament to versatility the players have with disparate repertoire. The soloists were drawn entirely from the CSO ranks, such the two violists playing the lead duet in the sixth concerto, Weijing Wang and Catherine Brubaker, shared a playful repartee while backed by only five other players, an ensemble so small it was almost a reductio ad absurdum of Kraemer’s ideas, if it were not for the brilliant execution, particularly from the concert’s lead workhorse, principal cellist John Sharp, who, unsurprisingly for a cellist, clearly loves Bach’s music. Concertmaster Robert Chen got all the violin solos, demonstrating his jack-of-all-trades proficiency, but assistant concertmaster Stephanie Jeong, demonstrated assassin-like seriousness in a smaller featured part in the third concerto. Christopher Martin, featured only in the fifth concerto, was especially delightful presenting the Baroque trumpet solo which makes the horn sound like a different instrument when compared to later repertoire. Finally, the lengthy virtuoso harpsichord solo in the fifth concerto was handled by Mark Shuldiner, not Kraemer, and Shuldner’s playing of the difficult, contrapuntal piece demonstrated the depth of Bach’s writing that shames some of the favorites for concert-hall showoffs. 

CSO Violist Weijing Wang

all photos Todd Rosenberg except publicity photo of Nicholas Kraemer by Jim Steere

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