Our esteemed editor notes that the holiday season is one of many musical productions – but often offering very little variety. In many cities it’s a choice between The Nutcracker, the Messiah, The Nutcracker, a holiday pops concert and The Nutcracker. Occasionally, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio or Menotti’s Amahl & the Night Visitors might make an appearance. Oh, did I mention The Nutcracker?!

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra © Chelsea Tischler
Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
© Chelsea Tischler

Fortunately, for music lovers in Minneapolis-St Paul there is a different tradition that's a highly anticipated event every holiday season. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra serves up the complete (or nearly complete) Bach Brandenburg Concertos. And what a treat it is – a wonderful opportunity for audiences to take in repertoire that’s familiar in some ways but not in others. The six Brandenburgs aren’t uniformly known. Several, like 2 and 3, are nearly ubiquitous. Several others (4 and 5) are fairly well-known. But 1 and 6 appear on concert programs far less often. There’s something quite compelling about hearing multiple Brandenburgs in the same concert. One realizes two things:  firstly, the genius of these pieces is that they don’t sound at all “repetitive” when heard as a group; secondly, this is music that is fundamentally soul-satisfying.

These characteristics are even more evident when hearing the Brandenburgs performed by an ensemble as polished as the SPCO. The pieces are tailor-made for this group, with the players turning each concerto into its own special gem. The SPCO musicians must have this music in their bones, but from the very opening notes it was clear that we were in for a very special music treat. And as it turned out, nothing in these performances came across as “routine”.

It seems almost unnecessary to comment on the individual concertos that were performed, but a few thoughts came to mind as I reveled in the musical atmospherics. In the Sixth Concerto – which was actually the first one Bach composed – the music can sound a little too discursive in the first and second movements. Moreover, with the instrumentation favoring the lower register, too often the music can seem rather flat. Not here; the SPCO musicians’ propulsive account gave the music the direction it needed, and I found that my attention never wavered. It surely helped that the first movement was played at the fastest tempo I have ever heard, and that interpretative calculation really worked.

In the Fifth Concerto, the harpsichord playing was particularly effective, with Jeffrey Grossman handling the all-important solo passages with real aplomb. Unfortunately, elsewhere in today’s concert, at times I found that the harpsichord was played too softly to be heard properly.

To me, the Fourth is remindful of pastoral scenes – especially when played as lithely as was done here, with delicate flute phrasing beautifully presented by Julia Kogan and Alicia McQuerrey. The important violin solo part was played by Francisco Fullana, who turned in a virtuoso performance while staying true to the music’s Baroque provenance.

As part of its modus operandi, the SPCO trades off instrumental solos between various members of the ensemble. So, in the Third Concerto the solo violin passages were played by Ruggero Allifranchini – and very effectively, too. This universally loved concerto – the selection that opened the concert – was airy and fleet-footed, with its two movements having a real spring in their step. Ultra-precision ensemble was the rule in this concerto – and indeed nearly everywhere else in the concert.

If I had to put a feather on the scale, my favorite performance of the afternoon was the First Concerto. It’s the Brandenburg that sounds the most like a concerto grosso, with the inclusion of three oboes along with French horns and bassoon. I don’t think I’ve ever heard horns play so well in this piece than they did today; Jay Ferree and Matthew Wilson were beautifully paired, and their interplay with the other winds couldn’t have been bettered.

The only Brandenburg missing from today’s concert was the well-loved Second Concerto – perhaps left off the program because of the need for an F trumpet soloist to navigate the original clarino part in Bach’s score. But with such highly effective playing in the other five concertos, it was hardly missed. Indeed, the SPCO reminded us today what masterpieces of music the Brandenburg Concertos really are. I can’t think of a better holiday musical offering; kudos to the orchestra for making it a Twin Cities tradition these past three decades.