Richard Egarr, director of the Academy of Ancient Music, visits Seattle for a Baroque and Wine series performance of Bach’s orchestral suites.

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The Seattle Symphony Orchestra will downsize to chamber mode when Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) director Richard Egarr conducts Bach’s orchestral suites Friday and Saturday, Feb. 20-21, at Benaroya Hall. The concerts are part of SSO’s Baroque and Wine series.

For Egarr, an authority on historically informed Baroque performance, even a significantly reduced number of SSO players — “a healthy string section of probably 35,” he says, plus the odd brass, wind or percussion instrument — is a modern indulgence.

“That’s much larger than Bach would ever have had for this music. When I do these pieces with the Academy, we do it with one string player on every part.”


Seattle Symphony: Bach’s Orchestral Suites

With Richard Egarr, conductor and harpsichordist. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 20-21, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $20-$76 (206-215-4747 or Preconcert wine tastings in the Samuel & Althea Stroum Grand Lobby; $10 for four pours.

That’s more or less how Egarr led a 2009 appearance by AAM during his last visit to Benaroya. Egarr directed Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos” from his position as one of the world’s expert harpsichordists, trading leads with other members of a spare ensemble that included such 18th-century instruments as a viola da gamba, Baroque guitar and theorbo.

This time, Egarr will appear on his own as a guest of the Seattle orchestra, conducting again from a harpsichord in true Baroque fashion.

“It’s a big orchestra with people who want to play,” he says. “That has ‘plus and minus’ ramifications. But modern orchestras don’t play this kind of music very much now, so it’s great to be able to bring this music to modern players and give them a chance to enjoy it.”

Bach’s orchestral suites — hard to date but known to have been published, in some cases, in the 1730s — were written, Egarr believes, shortly before he moved to Leipzig, Germany, in 1723 to assume a prestigious position as resident composer for church and city functions.

The suites, Egarr says, are part of Baroque repertoire now largely deferred to the early-music movement, a cultural phenomenon that began in the 1950s. It emphasizes period instruments and investigation of performance practices before the 19th century.

Orchestral suites were a popular form of music in the 18th century.

“There’s always a big, majestic opening movement which is the longest of a suite, followed by a bunch of dance movements,” Egarr says. “We are going to perform all four surviving pieces that Bach left.

“We don’t exactly know what he wrote them for, but he would have written them for the situation he was working in. So when he was working for Prince Leopold [of Köthen], before Leipzig, he would write music for the players he had around.”

Instrumentation for the suites includes oboe, timpani, trumpet and bassoon. Tucson Symphony Orchestra principal flute Alexander Lipay will perform the widely known solo from Suite No. 2 in B minor.

One of the most famous passages in all Baroque music is the “Air” from Suite No. 3 in D major (popularly known as the “Air on a G String”).

Egarr, 51, an organ scholar at the University of Cambridge and Guildhall School of Music & Drama, took the reins of AAM, founded in 1973, in 2005. He may be steeped in early music, but he also performs on modern piano and conducts contemporary works.

“People love to pigeonhole you in the music business,” he says. “I’ve conducted John Adams and Charles Ives — all sorts of things. I can’t restrict myself to 17th- and 18th-century music. There’s too much to do.”