The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the Bay Area’s leading practitioner of historically-informed period 17th and 18th century performance, is undergoing a major transition.
Its longtime music director, Nicholas McGegan, is retiring this year. His successor, Richard Egarr, who has led the ensemble as a guest before, gave a preview of the new regime by conducting the group’s February concerts. Like most Philharmonia programs, this traveled around the Bay Area. It came to Bing Concert Hall at Stanford on Wednesday, Feb. 12.
Egarr, like McGegan, is a harpsichord player by trade. He led this concert from that seat, either in concertos for his instrument or as continuo, the bass underpinning common in Baroque music. All the works were by the greatest of Baroque composers, J. S. Bach. In Egarr’s energetic and witty introduction, he invited the listeners to consider themselves the audience at one of Bach’s Collegium Musicum concerts at a Leipzig coffeehouse in the 1730s.
Such imagining was all the easier when the highlight of the concert was Bach’s “Coffee Cantata.” This is really an operatic scene without staging, featuring recitatives and arias, in the Italian style though the text is in German. Soprano Nola Richardson was appropriately perky in the role of a young woman dedicated to her love of drinking coffee. Bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum was outstandingly deep and blustery as her heavy-handed father who forbids her the pleasure, as fathers in stories like this typically do. Tenor James Reese was light and amusing as the narrator.
In the end, of course, all ends happily as the daughter gets her coffee and her father gives in. There was lots of interpolated stage business throughout the show, including Reese revealing a T-shirt reading “Death Before Decaf,” and culminating with a well-timed clink of coffee mugs at the final chord.
Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D offered less drama but equal pleasure. Egarr’s conducting emphasized successive phrases. This gave a coherent shape to the whole and enabled the listener to trace the harmonic structure of each movement. In the famous Air, the one often played on the G-string, Egarr turned 19th-century in style, applying elaborate tempo variation to emphasize flexibility. Throughout the work, the music breathed naturally and avoided formal stiffness.
The two harpsichord concertos that completed the program were more problematic. The problem was the harpsichord. Egarr is modest about his instrument. He described the harpsichord as limited by a lack of the expressiveness of string instruments or the piano. When the player presses a key, the machine simply goes “ping.” It can’t vary loudness or expression.
The problem here, however, was not that the harpsichord lacked expression but that it lacked audibility. Harpsichords aren’t always this quiet, but throughout both concertos it was frequently hardly possible to make out the quiet buzz of Egarr playing away underneath the strings, even when the strings made a special effort to play softly.
This problem was worse in the Concerto No. 7 in G minor, BWV 1058, than in the Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052. No. 7 is a transcription of a violin concerto in A minor. It’s darker and more awkward then the original. Egarr believes that No. 1 was composed originally for the harpsichord. It definitely sits better on the instrument. Parts of the solo work came through, even aside from cadenzas. The whole had something of the liveliness of the orchestral suite.
Philharmonia Baroque’s next concert, under McGegan, turns to the early 19th century, featuring Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, with soloist Alana Youssefian, and Schubert’s Great C major Symphony. This one comes to Bing on Wednesday, March 11.
Egarr has announced the program for next season, his first as music director. This will feature a complete reproduction of the famous 1808 marathon concert at which Beethoven introduced the Fifth and Pastoral Symphonies among other works. That will be heard in a single performance in San Francisco in September. Besides music by the likes of Purcell, Handel, Haydn and Mozart, other concerts in the season will include a new opera commissioned from Matthew Aucoin plus the Philharmonia debut of the work of Piotr Tchaikovsky. Info is at philharmonia.org.