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Bach was great arbiter of music

Last Saturday evening we continued our trek with the Albany Symphony Orchestra to Baroque Germany lead, as usual by Claire Fox Hillard, this time as both conductor and violinist.

What is Baroque? -- in music, it is the period from about 1600 to 1750 following that of the Renaissance. Each of these "periods" has to do with changes in western European life styles as they are affected by politics, war, the economy, etc. Artists (painters sculptors, architects, musicians) being sensitively attuned to what is happening around them seek to express all this creatively. Johann Sebastian Bach life (1685-1750) spanned the height and beginning denouement of this period.

The symphony's sampling of the work of this broad genius is but a small one. Most of these musical periods were contemporary, in that people were only interested in the secular music popular in their time. Sacred music was a different story preserved by the Catholic Church. The music of three of J. S. Bach's sons -- Wilhelm Friedman, Johann Christoph and Carl Philip Emanuel Bach -- was far more popular than was his.

Apparently, Dad was a bit careless about preserving his own music, We know that there was much of it, that the requirements of his job was, to say the least, overwhelming -- producing "new" music each week, training the boys to sing it, teaching Latin in the church school, organ competitions.

Whew! Well, maybe he just didn't bother. Felix Mendelssohn uncovered this treasure trove when he discovered the great St. Matthews Passion (finished in 1729) and "introduced" (or re-introduced) it to an astonished audience 100 years later in 1829 at one of his Gewandhaus concerts in Leipzig, Germany where he was orchestra conductor. From that time until even now musicologists have made a kind of industry ("going crazy" to use a bit of levity) in trying to put together some semblance of a catalog of "all" that he wrote. And they're still discovering (and arguing about) stuff.

They've given it the name Bachwerkeverzeichnis. Wow! It simply means Catalog of Bach's Work. When you see BWV followed by a number, as in this program, that is an abbreviation of the impossible German word above. The number following is the order in which it appears in the catalog (they're still arguing about those). Dad, apparently, left few if any clues about any of this in his autographs (handwritten scores).

J.S. Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos fall with the genre of the concerto grosso which had been developing in Italy since the 1640's. They are characterized by small groups of solo instruments called concertini alternating with a larger group called tutti or ripieni. The whole mechanism is under girded by a keyboard instrument (or clavier, in Baroque parlance). This part is referred to as continuo which fills in the harmonic structure.

The orchestra gave us the full range of imaginative possibilities. Some highlights: the use of two continuo instrument (harpsichords) -- an orchestral one and a larger solo one raised from below to stage level; its broad lift displaying a colorful Baroque painting. In No. 5 in D Major, Marcia Mitchell Hood led the concertino with her characteristic masterful playing. Flautists Elizabeth Goode and Bond Anderson did yeomen's work throughout all six. No. 1 in F Major oboist Susan Brashier and bassoonist Shannon Lowe were standouts in the concertino (solo group). We are aware of slighting other fine musicians among the 27 artists who gave us such a splendid reading of this corner of this master's work.

There was so much music here and such bewildering contrast that we are strongly inclined to agree with the lexicographer Nicholas Slonimsky when he declared Johann Sebastian Bach to be "supreme arbiter and lawgiver of music."

James Marquis is a composer and emeritus professor of music at Albany State University, retired.