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Harpsichords 1 · 2 · 3 · 4, Violins 3 · 4

Concert Review by Karl D. Bachman

The final Friday and Saturday evenings of October brought a once-in-a-lifetime event to our state as the Lutheran Church of Honolulu, under the direction of Cantor Carl Crosier, gathered some of the finest string players and keyboard artists on Oahu for a night of dueling musicians, without the nightmare of four businessmen seeking one last adventure in a Georgia backwater gorge and being harassed by the local “ne’er do wells.” No dueling banjos here, but four outstanding violinists and five gifted harpsichordists with members of the Bach Chamber Orchestra providing the perfect foil to the solos as they presented rarely heard Baroque concerto masterworks as part of this season’s Abendmusiken Concerts.

A great musicological aspect of these concerts is that the audience got to experience an early chapter in the development of the modern solo concerto. As the program notes indicated the works heard were more than likely transcriptions of earlier works, perhaps even works of other composers, that were strongly influenced by the popularity of the Italian concerto form: three movements, generally fast-slow-fast, that would feature the whole orchestra or tutti with textural relief provided by a smaller consort, duet, or soloist as the concertino. Though the Bolognese origins under Corelli and Torelli may have used two keyboards for the continuo: one each for the tutti and the concertino, Vivaldi and Bach trimmed these down to one. Cantor Crosier did the honors for the evening, and in keeping with his practice at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu, a double bass (Mike Gorman) was used to give added emphasis to the harmonic movement of the bass line.

Beginning with the Bach “Concerto in A Major” for harpsichord, strings, and continuo, the cascading arpeggios of the opening movement only served as the amuse-bouche to whet the appetite for the main fare that would follow. It didn’t take long. The Vivaldi “Concerto in b minor” for four violins, strings, and continuo gave the first sampling of virtuosity from the featured violins of the evening: Darel Stark, Ignace Jang, Wu Hung, and Judy Barrett. Together and individually they served a course of hot and spicy from their instruments that rivaled anything from Emeril Lagasse even with the extra “Baam!”

Grant Mack joined forces for the Bach “Concerto in C Major” as a second harpsichord was placed into service. I don’t know how he does it, but he sits at the keyboard motionless and expressionless and the music simply flies from the ends of his fingers. With the addition of the second harpsichord, we could compare the sounds from two different instruments. Fortunately the program notes offered detailed backgrounds on all the soloists and harpsichords which afforded the listener an added dimension of appreciation.

Then there was an intermission. It is of the nature of harpsichords that if you look at one sideways it goes out of tune. But the organizers thought of this ahead of time and the audience was treated to a lavish array of refreshments in the courtyard as the room was cleared and the instruments “touched up” for the second half. I understand that on Saturday evening the temperature of the room was actually lowered a few degrees and the lights were not raised to the full during the performance with the result that tuning was less of an issue.

The second half continued on the path of “mo’ bettah, mo’ bettah” as a third harpsichord was added for the Bach “Concerto in d minor” and Evelyn Zuckerman joined the ensemble to display her supreme sensitivity and musicianship in the execution of cadenzas with just the right amount of rubato when necessary to bring out the beauty of the musical lines. In the Bach “Concerto in D major” for three violins Darel Stark, Ignace Jang, and Emma Philips took their places to reveal that Vivaldi was not the only Baroque composer who could master hot and spicy in performance. This was truly a contest of “dueling violins” and the miracle is that no one broke a string or lost a bow in the contest. “Yum, yum! You should have been there!”

Finally the fourth harpsichord was added, and Evelyn Lance and Mark Russell sat at the keyboards for the Bach “Concerto in a minor” while Cantor Crosier took to the podium to conduct. The moment had arrived, and no one was disappointed. The music and the musicianship were superb. The room was awash with the delicate beauty of four harpsichords strained to their limits in performance. Throughout the evening the orchestra was always balanced with the soloists, from the piano to the forte of the ensemble revealing not only the possibilities of the harpsichord in ensemble, but also the sensitivity and good musicianship of so fine an orchestra.

Great art is measured in different ways. For some greatness is the person who tries a completely new and exciting idea, such as Monteverdi and the basso continuo which would propel his music from the high Renaissance into the Baroque and all the compositional possibilities he would explore in his last four books of Madrigals. For others, like Johann Sebastian Bach, greatness would be to take what went before and push it to the outer limits as he did in this final concerto of the evening. Following Bach it would take new forms and new technology before music would again use the word “great.”

What a rare treat it was to experience something so delightful here in Hawaii where we don’t always have the instruments available, but where we have such outstanding musicians ready and willing, so that when the opportunity presents itself, we can take advantage and enjoy the best of the best. Our deepest thanks and appreciation to all the performers and especially to the Lutheran Church of Honolulu and Cantor Carl Crosier as they continue to find new and exciting ways to share the best of the Baroque and beyond in our community

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