Standing in front of a harpsichord Saturday on the New World Center stage, Jeannette Sorrell invited the audience to forget the electric lights, the cushioned seats and ultra-modern surroundings of the Miami Beach concert hall.
“Tonight we want you to take yourself back to the 18th century, to Leipzig, where coffee was all the rage,” she said. “An enterprising businessman, Gottfried Zimmermann, had a clever idea to draw in the crowds by holding casual concerts in the evening.”
Among the men leading the concerts: a renowned local church music director named Johann Sebastian Bach. And so went Saturday’s concert, with small groups of New World Symphony musicians, under the leadership of Sorrell, playing a selection of works such as Bach might have chosen to entertain his coffee-quaffing audience.
Making her New World debut, Sorrell led a performance of works of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi, played with impeccable skill and spirit by the young musicians. A highly respected early music specialist who heads the Cleveland-based Apollo’s Fire Baroque Orchestra, Sorrell is an assertive interpreter, coaxing out melodies here and there, drawing out crescendos and climaxes and imposing an overall shape to each movement. She let the music speak for itself, never trying to inject false drama by turning the performances into roller coaster rides of crescendos and accelerations, thumping chords or other gimmicky things some conductors do to try to inject extra excitement.
While there’s nothing like an evening that lets one concentrate on a single big work by Mahler or Bruckner, there’s something to be said for the sheer variety and entertainment value of a program with six pieces. Not into the Bach Sinfonia currently being played? It will be over in a few minutes, and then on to the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, and after that some Vivaldi.
If anything could show the superiority of a live performance over a recording, it was the New World’s performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Violin and viola solos that might have seemed to emanate from a couple of musicians turn out to be from several, as the melodies moved from player to player, with sudden flashes of brilliant playing as each soloist contributed a flurry of notes before rejoining the group. Technically, the playing was admirably clean, the intonation accurate, the overall tone full and resonant. But more than that, the performance moved with a natural flow and immediacy that expressed the work’s jovial spirit.
The scarcity of concertos for two cellos may seem unsurprising, given what may be the difficult task of making two low-pitched instruments stand out from the orchestra. But the performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Minor for Two Cellos was a success, thanks to the composer’s imaginative writing and the incisive, committed playing of soloists Meredith McCook and Grace An. Both soloists played in an aggressive, biting manner in the outer movements, giving an edge of raw excitement to the performance without any sacrifice of accuracy or tonal beauty. In the second movement, they joined together for long, singing melodies accompanied only by the harpsichord, an effective means of highlighting solo instruments by Vivaldi.
Handel’s Suite from Terpsichore was most notable for its final movement, a stately chaconne that grew in power and intensity under Sorrell’s direction. Next came Sorrell’s own arrangement for orchestra of Vivaldi’s La Folia trio sonata. Violin soloists Dima Dimitrova and Alexander Lee gave deft accounts of the increasingly intense and frenzied variations.
The concert closed with more Bach, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, given as lively and precise a performance as the earlier one. Notable in this one was the virtuoso violin playing of soloist Lauren Densinger, who blazed through extremely fast runs and gave a clean, bright account of Bach’s spiky, string-crossing passages. Flute soloists Emma Gerstein and Luke Fitzpatrick provided vivacious, buoyant accounts of the melodies.
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