Bach Collegium San Diego Brings Its Stylish Period Interpretation of the Brandenburg Concertos to East County

The eminent Bach Collegium San Diego opened its 17th season Friday with an all-Bach program that lived up to the ensemble’s estimable period music performance standards. With its dependable cadre of virtuoso soloists, the Bach Collegium gave vibrant accounts of four of the six Brandenburg Concertos and Bach’s poetic wedding cantata for solo soprano “Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten,” BWV 202.

Ruben Valenzuela [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

What was unusual about this concert, however, was its venue and location. Over the years, the Bach Collegium has performed in larger churches in the county’s coastal communities or towns: La Jolla, Point Loma, Pacific Beach, and Cardiff. But Friday’s concert was presented in Cuyamaca College’s new, spacious and pleasantly appointed Ciccati Theatre in Rancho San Diego, the heart of East County. From the substantial audience in attendance and their ebullient response to the performance, this certainly marks an important expansion of the organization’s outreach. Bravo!

Artistic Director Ruben Valenzuela opened his program with The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto in D Major, BWV 1050, for solo harpsichord, violn and transverse flute. This allowed Michael Sponseller, the ensemble’s Associate Music Director and regular keyboard continuo guru, to flaunt his technical prowess in this flamboyant work that some music historians call the first harpsichord concerto. Sponseller’s impassioned playing—aggressive yet rhythmically disciplined—challenged his colleagues violinist Adam LaMotte and traverso virtuoso Stephen Schultz to keep up with his lead.

LaMotte and Schultz chose nuanced phrasing and skillfully shaded dynamics over muscle, but the combination of these three soloists and the finesse of the other four players gave this exuberant D Major Concerto a joyous sense of propulsion throughout.

Like a shrewd card player, LaMotte revealed his hand judiciously over the course of the concert, offering heart-stopping lyricism in his viola solos in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat Major, BWV 1051, and saving his bravura display for Bach’s sumptuous, wild figurations in the program’s finale, Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, BWV 1049.

Trumpter Kathryn Adduci, an internationally acclaimed Baroque trumpet virtuosa upon whom Valenzuela regularly calls, and Baroque oboe specialist Curtis Foster infused the Brandenburg Concerto in F Major, BWV 1047, with extraordinary brilliance and compass. Aducci’s silvery legato splendidly subdued—with apparent nonchalance—the composer’s daunting technical challenges. Each time I hear Aducci perform Bach’s music, I reaffirm the conclusion that no matter how accomplished a musician using a modern valve trumpet may be, he cannot come close to the lyrical elegance Bach expected when he wrote for the natural trumpet of his day.

Because Bach silences the trumpet in the sublime middle movement of the F Major Brandenburg, Foster’s velvet oboe line was allowed to charm without distraction, and he was complemented by LaMotte’s suave, but dynamically understated violin contribution.

Kudos to both Shanon Zusman, Valenzuela’s gifted staff violone maestro, and Michael Sponseller for doubling with such finesse on viola da gamba in the B-flat Major Brandenburg Concerto. They added welcome warmth and substance to the ensemble of this concerto grosso for strings. In the middle movement of this concerto we were able to hear the sound of the Bach Collegium’s new continuo pipe organ from the Dutch organbuilder Klop. In the larger ensembles, the organ contributed to the overall body of sound, but its own voice was not distinguishable. But in the delicately scored Adagio, Valenzuela’s deftly placed chords revealed the new instrument’s gentle, refined sonority.

Bach’s deft, evocative tone painting and lively dances animate the bucolic and mythical imagery of his secular wedding cantata “Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten.” Soprano Clara Rottsalk brought her bright, agile soprano as well as her sophisticated period phrasing to this cantata, and I particularly enjoyed her agitated but enchanting roulades in the aria that described the sun god Phoebus driving his mythical horses across the sky at dawn of day. But I thought the hall’s clean but dry acoustics proved unhelpful to the singer, masking the usual brightness of her voice, especially in her midrange.

With this caveat, the new venue offered a generous welcome to the Bach Collegium San Diego.

This concert was presented on October 11, 2019, by the Bach Collegium San Diego in Cuyamaca College’s Ciccati Theatre in its Performing Arts Center on the campus located in Rancho San Diego. The concert will be repeated on October 12, 2019, in Cardiff at the Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church.

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