Grand Rapids Symphony takes audience from Bach to beyond in 2018-19 Great Eras opener at St. Cecilia Music Center

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Performing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach needs no reason, justification or explanation. You need not wait for a particular season, a special event or an anniversary date. Bach is the man.

You hear a lot of Bach in the cathedral. Not so much in the concert hall. Sadly, Bach flourished and died well before the modern symphony orchestra came into its own. One wonders what he might have composed for the orchestras that Beethoven and Brahms had at their disposal.

The Grand Rapids Bach Festival returns in March with a week devoted to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. But the Grand Rapids Symphony opened its 2018-19 PwC Great Eras Series with a taste of what’s to come.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger was on the podium for The Baroque Concert: Bach and Beyond on Friday, Oct. 12, in St. Cecilia Music Center, which the Grand Rapids Symphony also performed the following day at the Jack H. Miller Center at Hope College in Holland.

Earlier on Friday, Lehninger and the orchestra performed a portion of the evening program at St. Cecilia to open the 2018-19 Porter Hills Coffee Classics series.

Principal Oboist Ellen Sherman was the guest soloist in Alessandro Marcello’s Concerto for Oboe in C minor. Lehninger led a clean performance of precision and clarity by the Italian composer, a contemporary of J.S. Bach’s and one that Bach admired.

The expressive, Italian passion was provided by Sherman, whose impeccable phrasing and sweet, mellow tone was a joy to experience as she held court among a small ensemble of just 15 musicians. The tasteful intensity of the finale was delightful. The bouquet of flowers Sherman was presented at the end was well deserved.

The Brazilian-born Lehninger slowly is introducing Grand Rapids to the music and culture of Latin America, and there’s no better place to start than with Heitor Villa-Lobos, who is to Brazilian music what Aaron Copland is to American music.

Lehninger led the orchestra in two movements of Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas brasileiras No. 9, one of several works that Villa-Lobos wrote using wrote using Brazilian folk melodies coupled with Bach’s compositional techniques.  The music reminds the listener of how universal Bach’s music is as well as how remarkable Villa-Lobos’s music is.

Lehninger skillfully led the 27-member ensemble through the syncopated, mixed meters that demanded virtuosity from the players and a cooperative spirit from the entire orchestra.

Mention Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 and its likely only musicians and Bach devotees immediately will recognize the piece. Mention Bach’s Air on a G String – the second movement of the suite – and everyone who listens to classical music on public radio will know exactly what you’re talking about.

It’s an adorably sophisticated piece of five movements full of brass flourishes and genteel melodies, all based on dance forms, entirely for the pleasure of listening and enjoying. When Bach wanted to entice an audience, or possibly, the town elders of Leipzig, whom he worked for, he could woo with the best.

The Grand Rapids Symphony gave a charming performance of the piece that many in the audience came specifically to hear. They did not leave disappointed.

Royce Auditorium in the historic, late 19th century St. Cecilia building, is a wonderful place for music of the Baroque, the Classical Era and the early Romantic Era. The program opened with a blast of brass, a Fanfare and Chorus from Ihr lieben Christen, freut euch nun (“Dear Christians, rejoice now”) by Bach’s predecessor, Dietrich Buxtehude, and a Canzon Septimi toni a 8 by Giovanni Gabrieli of the high Renaissance.

Just eight brass players – three trumpets, three horn, one trombone and one tuba were on stage, but the music, which filled Royce Auditorium from side to side and from top to bottom was just heavenly.

The 2018-19 PwC Great Eras series continues in January at St. Cecilia with The Classical Concert and music of Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 3:00 PM
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