Under Sorrell, New World players morph smoothly into Baroque band

By David Fleshler

Jeannette Sorrell conducted the New World Symphony Saturday night. File photo: Roger Mastroianni

Jeannette Sorrell conducted the New World Symphony Saturday night. File photo: Roger Mastroianni

The brass and percussion sections took the night off, as the New World Symphony shrank to the size of an 18th-century orchestra for an evening of Baroque music Saturday.

Conducting from the harpsichord was Jeannette Sorrell, a renowned early music specialist who founded Apollo’s Fire, a Cleveland-based period-instrument ensemble.

“Tonight, we invite you back to the 18th century, to Leipzig, where coffee was all the rage,” she said, speaking from the stage of New World Center in Miami Beach. At these new coffee houses, she said, the owners would invite composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and their musicians to provide a little entertainment to get the customers in the door.

The concert opened with the Grillen-Symphonie of Georg Philipp Telemann, a composer whose popularity has plummeted since his own time, when he ranked with Handel and enjoyed wider renown than Bach.

Unlike the works of Vivaldi and Bach that would follow, which felt firmly rooted in the Baroque period, Telemann’s short three-movement symphony seemed to look forward to the Classical era. The airy first movement had the buoyancy and straightforward tunefulness of a Haydn symphony. The second movement carried compact dramatic power, with sudden minor-key chords punctuating the phrases in the violins. The last movement came off with rustic vigor, which Sorrell gave a strong rhythmic pulse.

The New World musicians adapted their style to the period, playing without vibrato. But unlike the murky sounds produced by some early music ensembles, their playing was technically admirable, with excellent intonation, clarity and precision.

Most of the concert was taken up by concertos, in their early 18th century incarnation, in which musicians from the orchestra would step out for a few solo passages before resuming their place in the ensemble. As Sorrell explained, Bach would have programmed several of these to show off the talents of his children, and Vivaldi’s well-known association with a Venetian girls’ orphanage produced many talented young people who could handle the solo parts.

For listeners accustomed to the extroverted approach of soloists in 19th or 20th century concertos, in which a heroic violinist or pianist takes on the orchestra, some of the solo playing may have seemed modest and excessively subdued.

In Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor for Two Violins, for example, the solos of Margeaux Maloney and Chelsea Sharpe didn’t always emerge from the surrounding ensemble sounds with the sharpness, clarity and force one might have expected. Yet there was a power and effectiveness to this approach, which placed the music first and heightened the impact of the passages that did stand out–their brief duos in the first movement, the searing, aching suspensions of the Larghetto, and the rollicking high-speed passages of the concluding Allegro. Both soloists played with impeccable bowing and intonation.

In Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2, flute soloist Masha Popova played with flawless technique in passages that were almost unbelievably fast but never out of control. Her bright, light playing danced around the sturdy tuttis of the orchestra, with fast passages given a lyric arc and ornaments, particularly in the concluding Badinerie, which she tossed off with finesse and style.

Sorrell was the star soloist in Bach’s  Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, with its prominent harpsichord part. The centerpiece of the first movement is a cadenza that’s epic in scale, particularly for the period. She played this in a rhythmically free style, increasing the tension and tightening up the rhythm as arpeggios started to ascend over a pedal point and then ramping up the speed, making the cadenza the climactic event it was intended to be.

The Affettuoso carried an emotional force that felt truly distant from the usual concert hall fare. Rather than using vibrato, except for a hint here and there, violinist Christen Greer and flautist Johanna Gruskin used phrasing and gradations in volume to bring out the music’s solemn power.

The concert concluded with the best-known work on the program, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. The opening movement was drawn in subtle shades. Although the playing was technically impeccable, the high points felt subdued, lacking the tone of jubilation to really put the work over. A highlight of the Andante was the expressive bass line played by René Schiffer, principal cello of the Apollo’s Fire orchestra. The star in this work is, of course, the trumpeter, and Mark Grisez didn’t disappoint, delivering a penetrating, high-flying performance that gave the ensemble’s tone a sparkling top.

The program will be repeated 2 p.m. Sunday at New World Center in Miami Beach. nws.edu; 305-673-3331.

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Sun Mar 11, 2018
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