Ever since the young, iconoclastic Felix Mendelssohn brought back J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829 to a continent and musical culture that had completely forgotten the great Leipzig master, the music of J. S. Bach and his peers continues to undergo periodic revivals. The closing decades of the 20th century witnessed the cultivation of period instrument ensembles and orchestras that taught both performers and listeners more about Bach and Baroque performance practice than all the scholarly treatises produced since Mendelssohn’s day.
The young, iconoclastic violinist Aisslinn Nosky grew up in this era of period instrument ensembles, and her approach to Baroque performance reflects this salutary influence: a light touch but a penetrating sonority; articulating short phrases that breathe frequently, and the use of flexible dynamic contours to enliven the composer’s themes and figurations.
Nosky and three of her young compatriots—Fabiola Kim, Daniel Koo, and Hojean Yoo—opened Tuesday’s (August 11) SummerFest concert with Georg Philipp Telemann’s Concerto in D Major for Four Violins, a compact, vivacious demonstration of how these performance techniques gleaned from period ensembles can be successfully applied by those who play modern string instruments. Although Telemann’s “concerto” is actually a clever violin quartet rather than a full-blown concerto with four soloists, this delectable contrapuntal foray served as an ideal appetizer to J. S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066.
Bach’s orchestral suites are indeed filled with stylized dance movements, but this exhilarating C Major Orchestral Suite started dancing from the overture’s opening chords. As these fifteen players under Nosky’s lead worked their way through gavottes and minuets and bourées, each dance displayed a distinctive color, dynamic pattern, or motivic articulation. Tempos landed on the sprightly side, but with the players’ lightness of touch and use of energetic short phrasing, they worked beautifully.
For the Bach, Nosky surrounded herself with the same violinists form the Telemann opener, along with violinists Jeanne Skrocki and Bridget Dolkas. Kudos to the fluent, highly articulate oboists Jonathan Davis and Andrea Overturf, as well as harpsichordist Patricia Mabee, whose solid continuo playing helped keep the ensemble tight. As concertmaster, Nosky gave the essential directional cues to her crew with confidence and clarity.
As if to prove how far we have come in Baroque interpretation, members of the old guard then came out to give their “before” demonstration in the form of J.S. Bach’s Sixth Brandenburg Concerto, BWV 1051. All they needed was a pair of stagehands to walk across the stage with a sign that read “Taking you back to Baroque style c. 1958.”
With great effort, violists Paul Neubauer and Lawrence Dutton and cellist Ralph Kirshbaum muscled their way through the familiar concerto’s first movement, employing their heavier, unvarying tone, endless legato and a flat dynamic that made Bach sound busy and labored rather than effervescent. Although the more reflective middle movement proved less weighty, their interpretation approached syrupy Mendelssohn rather than J. S. Bach. It was like watching an old movie where a character is placing a call on a big black phone with a rotary dial.
With the program’s second half devoted to the Italian Baroque style, Nosky offered a flashy solo turn, Giuseppe Tartini’s Violin Sonata in A Minor, Op. 2, No. 5, accompanied by harpsichordist Mabee. The duo luxuriated in the sonata’s ornate effusions, although I was not convinced that we have been seriously deprived by knowing only Tartini’s ubiquitous “Devil’s Trill” Sonata.
The most engaging of the Italian offerings was Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto No. 12, the “La Folia” variations, with Nosky again taking the lead solo. The ensemble appeared almost as animated as a comic commedia dell’arte skit, with Nosky playing the coy Columbine to cellist Joshua Roman’s frisky Harlequin, playfully bantering their themes back and forth while the rest of the strings egged them on. Violinist Hojean Yoo handled the work’s other solo role with equal aplomb.
Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in B Minor for Four Violins and Strings, Op. 3 No. 10, mixed solo violinists from different generations with some success: festival director Cho-Liang Lin and Kyoko Takezawa matched Nosky’s lithe approach more favorably than did Phillip Setzer, although the concerto’s infectious charm prevailed amid the varying approaches.