Conductor Andrew Manze and harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout opened Seattle Symphony's season of "Baroque and Wine" concerts with Bach's "Brandenburg" 5th Concerto, and other works that were Bach-inspired.
The Seattle Symphony’s “Baroque and Wine” series began the season with a fascinating mix of Bach and 20th-century composers who were inspired by him. One of those composers required an escort, but he found an apt one in guest conductor Andrew Manze.
But first, the concert began in a highly accessible way, as harpsichord phenom Kristian Bezuidenhout joined Manze and the chamber-size orchestra for Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1. The strings laid down a thick blanket of sound for the thin harpsichord texture, as Bezuidenhout wove his web of relentless precision. Its no mean trick to take a piece with almost no rhythmic variation, written for an instrument with no volume variation, and make it expressive, but Bezuidenhout pulled off this alchemy.
The warm, spiritual mathematics of Bach were then exchanged for what is often perceived as the cold, cerebral mathematics of serialism. The Symphony No. 21 by Anton Webern was preceded by a friendly, brilliant explanation of it from Manze. It may be odd to think that music written nearly a century ago would still require such defense, but our collective ear has never grown used to atonality in the way is has grown used to, say, the dissonance of Stravinsky, whose music graced the second half of the program.
After Manze took one more step in normalizing relations between Webern and audiences, the performance itself felt rather normal. The beauty in its elegant structure probably still escaped most listeners, but they at least knew it was there in theory, and appreciated the fact.
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Much warmer 20th-century music began the second half, with Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto. The composer and his patron both had the Bach Brandenburg concertos in mind when this was written, and it’s often described as neoclassical in its feel. Its also a very American-sounding piece, with strains of Copland as prominent as the strains of Bach. The low strings and French horns shone in the intense final movement, putting excellent motion in the “con moto.”
The program ended with smiles all around, as Bezuidenhout returned to the stage for Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 5, joined by mellifluous violinist Elisa Barston and flutist Judy Kriewall. It turns out that the fifth Brandenburg is a better harpsichord concerto than the Harpsichord Concerto that opened the program. Bezuidenhout got to display all of his world-class flash in the cadenza, and the audience left delighted.