The most memorable section of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s all-Baroque program didn’t include a single member of the band. In a last-minute solo addition to the concert, organ virtuoso Paul Jacobs took the stage with JS Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV543, and demonstrated the full weight of the Fred J Cooper Memorial Organ, a marvelous instrument too seldom utilized in Verizon Hall. Jacobs controlled the dynamics of the apparatus brilliantly, shaking the rafters with pure sound one moment and unfolding cadenzas of almost whispered beauty the next. He relished the showmanship baked into the piece, almost dancing in the various sections played entirely on foot pedals. At its most revealing moments, the performance unfolded like a deeply religious man’s conversation with God: awestruck, trembling and beautiful.

Nicholas McGegan
© Laura Barisonzi

Jacobs served as a more traditional soloist in Handel’s Organ Concerto no. 13 in F major. After a refined performance of the opening Larghetto, he segued playfully into the second-movement Allegro, whose sound effects and various bird calls give the work its subtitle: “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”. He did not find an equal partner in the reduced forces of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Nicholas McGegan, whose strings sounded wan in the alternating dialogue of the third movement, also marked Larghetto. Although the corps and soloist came together to deliver a feisty finale, the overall effect acted as a reminder that this era of music is not their natural habitat.

As is common on Baroque evenings, the remainder of the concert was rounded out by a number of short-duration pieces. The Orchestra’s first performances ever Jean-Féry Rebel’s Le Cahos displayed more control than chaos. The sound was too blended, with an overlay of string vibrato and a lack of clear vision from McGegan, conducting from the harpsichord. This is music that should be ceded to period instrumentalists who spend their careers dedicated to creating an historically accurate sound.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G major got lost in the vast expanses of Verizon Hall, but two other selections from these series showed off individual orchestra members at their finest. Flutists Jeffrey Khaner and Olivia Staton each brought startlingly different colors to the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto – her flute anchoring the work with a bell-clear transparency, his rich timbre taking flight. Guest artist Caleb Hudson played the fiendishly high piccolo trumpet solo lines in the Brandenburg Concerto no. 2 with mastery and style. The principal trumpet position in the Orchestra is currently vacant. Could he be a contender?