May 30, 2003

Bach-up Laredo impresses in relief

In my most recent review I wrote that Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra had "saved the day in remarkable fashion" when they replaced the Rotterdam Philharmonic at the last minute. In fact, I claimed that it was probably "for the better," given the works on the program. Well, with Daniel Barenboim ill, it was Jaime Laredo's turn to save the day last Friday evening at Symphony Center. And, dare I say it again, it was probably for the better.

The program consisted of Johann Sebastian Bach's Four Orchestral Suites. These works likely represent merely a small portion of the orchestral music that Bach composed, but the ravages of time have unfortunately left us only these, the Brandenburg Concertos, and a score of instrumental solo concertos. Though no original manuscripts of the Orchestral Suites survive, scholars have dated them fairly precisely: the first and fourth were written before 1725, the second in 1738 or 1789, and the third around 1730. Thus, they all hail from Bach's time in Leipzig, and more specifically from his collaboration with the Collegium Musicum, an orchestra of semi-professional and student musicians that Bach led for many years.

Each of the four suites follows a similar formal plan and are derived from the typical Baroque dance suite. They begin with a stately overture, marked by dotted rhythms and scalar flourishes, followed by a selection of typical dances in different tempos and meters, such as the gavotte, bouree, and minuet. Though Bach chose most of the dances in his suites from the standard set, he also included some atypical ones like the Badinerie of the second suite and the Rejouissance of the fourth suite.

The similar patterns of the suites would seem to lend them a sense of monotony, but they are in fact quite varied and heterogeneous works. That each suite is orchestrated for a different set of instruments speaks directly to this point. From the simple flute and string pairing in the Second Suite to the mixture of oboes, bassoon, and strings in the First, as well as trumpets and timpani in the Third and Fourth, Bach creates four distinct sonic worlds to complement his usual inventive melodic and harmonic framework. To have all four suites in one concert, then, is a rare opportunity to experience this diversity firsthand.

Laredo, more familiar to audiences as a distinguished violinist, made his CSO conducting debut with these concerts called in at the last minute to replace the ailing Barenboim. His technique left something to be desired and his readings of the suites were quite straightforward, bordering on mundane, but it is perhaps for these reasons that the inherent beauty and energy of the music emerged uncontested by the self-absorbed exploits of an overbearing conductor. This was especially evident in the well-known Air from the Third Suite, which Laredo took at a well-paced, even tempo that let the music speak for itself. Though Barenboim would most certainly have offered a compelling interpretation of the Suites, Laredo's eleventh hour substitution proved to be a welcome solution.

Despite a few unseemly missed notes by the violins, and a miscounted entrance in the trumpet, the assorted chamber ensembles played marvelously. Mathieu Dufour's flute solo in the Second Suite showed us his world-class sound, which blended beautifully with the violins when they were in unison, but carried sweetly when he played alone. His technical prowess was also on display, particularly during the famous Badinerie, taken at a breakneck tempo that was almost too fast. The oboe and bassoon duets and trios of the First Suite featured the eloquent tone and ensemble playing characteristic of the Chicago Symphony.

Perhaps the only consistently negative aspect of the orchestra's playing, though certainly not off-putting and understandable for a group such as the CSO, which is steeped in the traditions of large-scale 19th and 20th century romantic, bombastic orchestral works, was the overly thick and lush tone of the strings, particularly noticeable in moments such as the scalar flourishes of the various overtures. But despite this, the concert showed us that even the CSO, when scaled back and led appropriately, can adequately pull off works outside its regular repertoire.