Concert needed to define its approach to Bach

Violinist Adele Anthony led the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.
Violinist Adele Anthony led the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. (MARCIA CIRIELLO)
Posted: November 06, 2012

The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia's all-Bach program was a reminder, given the composer's stature, of how seldom such things come along - and why.

The Sunday concert at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater was led by violinist Adele Anthony, a winning, general-service graduate of Dorothy DeLay's Juilliard School pedagogy, who led reasonably pulled-together performances of Bach orchestral suites and concertos. For a casual Bach encounter, the concert was pleasantly attractive, in an program to be repeated Tuesday at the Temple Performing Arts Center.

But Bach performance practice has evolved so continuously in recent years that some recordings made even 15 years ago show their age, conceptually speaking. Such was the case with Anthony in ways that were subtle but ultimately left you with no renewed appreciation for the music.

Not every Bach violinist needs to be like the much-admired Rachel Podger, who defines the vanguard of historically informed violin performance. But whatever approach is taken needs to be more fully realized than what was heard Sunday.

Tempos were moderate in Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major, but without any strong purpose, and thus felt neither here nor there. The repeating sequences at the heart of Bach's musical constructions can seem like the work of a master builder or a pedant; these performances were closer to the latter than the former. Much-needed buoyance was heard in the bass instruments and the harpsichord, played by Davyd Booth (on loan from the Philadelphia Orchestra). But balances were not in their favor.

Anthony's own star turn in the Violin Concerto No. 2 felt preoccupied, as if her attention were so divided between playing and leading the orchestra that she couldn't give all she had to being the featured soloist. She didn't have a lot to say, even in the lovely slow movement.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 was the exception. Of the six, this is the only one for strings, though in the hectic interaction between violins, violas and cellos, all sections were up to the task in a performance whose tempo choices (on the fast side) were fueled by the kind of vitality that comes when players are thinking like chamber musicians.

In the concluding Orchestral Suite No. 3, Anthony perhaps revealed what she would rather be doing with the music. During the famous slow movement, "Air on the G String," expressive rubato added bloom here and there - touches that might be frowned upon these days but that worked beautifully in the day of Pablo Casals, and still do. There's nothing wrong with turning back the clock if whoever is doing so goes all the way.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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