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Cincinnati Art Museum a Perfect Venue for concert:nova's baroque

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 6, 2010 - 5:57:35 PM in reviews_2010

The chamber ensemble concert:nova has performed in coffee shops, bars, restaurants, shopping malls  and “found spaces” of all kinds.

concert:nova, Cincinnati Art Museum (photo by Sarah Tsai)

November 2 they found space beneath the rotunda in the Great Hall of the Cincinnati Art Museum.  And what a handsome spot to open their 2010-2011 season, especially with baroque music on tap. The program -- which spanned two evenings, with different repertoire November 3 -- was entitled "Two-Part Invention: A Festival of Baroque Music."

The Great Hall’s double staircase framed members of c:n and guest artists, including harpsichordist Vivian Montgomery, who performed on a reproduction 17th-century Florentine instrument built by Douglas Sutherland of Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Blue marble columns topped by Corinthian capitals rose from the galleries on the upper floor.  Red and gold spotlights cast a soft, warm glow.  Listeners sat in a semi-circle adjacent to the gallery housing the Museum’s Ancient Egyptian exhibits.  The floor was laid with carpet to absorb excess reverberation.

Musicologist bruce mcclung of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music provided verbal program notes.  In his introduction, he likened the concert to a wine-tasting, with distinctive music from Italy (Vivaldi), France (Jean Philippe Rameau) and Germany (Bach, Handel and Telemann).  Think "Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Riesling," he said.  He might have added vodka for Stravinsky, who was on the November 2 program.  The wines were available at a cash bar during intermission.  The music was front and center and tasty as one could wish.

Violinist Tatiana Berman, violist Kevin Boden and cellist Ted Nelson made the initial toast with four of Bach’s Two and Three-Part Inventions.  Written for keyboard, the pedagogic pieces lent themselves beautifully to ensemble performance and had a warm, well-defined resonance in the Museum space.  Berman’s sensitivity to baroque performance practice – utilizing selective or no vibrato and shading her tone production -- was particularly notable.

Montgomery (adjunct professor of keyboard at CCM), flutist Randolph Bowman and violinist Heidi Yenney followed with the fifth suite from Rameau’s “Pieces de Clavecin en concerts.”  As mcclung explained, this set of five concerts is one of the earliest examples of keyboard chamber music.  The keyboard is central to the ensemble and has a fully written-out part, as opposed to the semi-improvised, accompanimental role customarily assigned to the keyboard during the baroque era.  (Rameau specified that it could also be played as a harpsichord solo, without the other two instruments.)

The suites consist of character pieces with fanciful titles.  The fifth suite has three movements, “La Forqueray,” “La Cupis” and “La Marais,” all named for friends of Rameau.  “La Forqueray” and “La Marais” were viol players.  Marais was a son of Marin Marais, Gerard Depardieu’s character in the 1991 film “Tous les matins du monde,” said mcclung.  “La Cupis” was a famous ballerina known as La Camargo, who among other things, introduced ballet slippers and tights.

All of this made for some of the most exquisite music-making of the evening. Bowman and Yenney (both former members of Emmanuel Music in Boston) combined their early music expertise with Montgomery’s for a performance exceptional for its precision, blend and stylistic unity.  “La Forqueray” was a brisk fugue.  “La Cupis” was sweetly melodic, with perfectly timed ornamental runs, underlined in silver by Bowman’s flute.  “La Marais,” in conclusion, was sprightly and charming.

Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 3 for strings made a joyful noise in the hall.  Performing were violinists Anna Reider, Mauricio Aguiar and Berman, violists Heidi Yenney, Joanne Wojtowicz and Boden and cellists Christina Coletta, Sarah Kim and Nelson, with double bassist Boris Asafiev and Montgomery providing basso continuo accompaniment.  Tempos were brisk and the rendition athletic.  The  finale conjured images of a basketball game, with the players handing off notes and phrases to each another and making great waves of sound as the “game” moved across the court.  Note: The manuscript of Bach’s six Brandenburg concertos was never performed by its otherwise grateful dedicatee, the Margrave of Brandenburg, said mcclung.  It was sold for the equivalent of $22 in 1734, and remained unpublished until 1850.

That sniff of vodka was next, with two movements of Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” Suite, extracted from his ballet based on music by 18th-century Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi (and others).  Reider, Berman, Wojtowicz and Nelson played the Overture and Serenata with superb musicianship, giving the age-old commedia dell’arte character “Punch” (Pulcinella) just the right amount of assertiveness and romance.

“Pulcinella” marked the beginning of Stravinsky’s “neo-classic” period.  In his commentary, mcclung explained that neo-classicism included both neo-classic and neo-baroque initially, and that the term “baroque” was not applied to the music of that period until the 1940s.

It was none other than Stravinsky, supposedly, who quipped that “Vivaldi did not write 500 concertos, but the same concerto 500 times.”  One of them – and the only one of its kind in Vivaldi’s output, said mcclung – was the Concerto for Oboe and Violin in B-flat Major.  It was given a lovely reading by oboist Dwight Parry and violinist Mauricio Aguiar, with accompaniment by Reider, Berman, Yenney, Coletta and Montgomery.  The contrasting timbres of the solo instruments (Aguiar held his violin like a guitar and played pizzicato at one point) created vivid counterpoint, making one wonder why there is not more music for this combination. 

Few sounds are as affecting as Parry’s oboe, solo instrument in the Arioso (Sinfonia) from Bach’s Cantata No. 156, “Ich steh’ mit einem Fuss im Grabe,“ "I stand with one foot in the grave."  (The title, by the way, was not an unhappy one in Bach's time, said mcclung, when many people viewed death as an escape from "this vale of tears.")

This famous excerpt -- familiar, also, as the slow movement of Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in F Minor -- is most affecting on the oboe, and is thought to have been part of a lost oboe concerto by the composer.  Parry ornamented it with great feeling and beauty, bringing the concert to an exalted and positively reverent conclusion.

Part two of “Two-Part Invention” included more music by Bach, plus Handel, Telemann, Albinoni and Samuel Barber.  For a review by Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Janelle Gelfand, see her blog, "Arts in Focus," at www.cincinnati.com  

Next up for concert:nova is "Cello Portraits," a concert of music for cello octet, December 5 and 6, venue to be announced.  For information, visit www.concertnova.com