The Orchestra of St Luke's (OSL) can trace its beginnings to 1974 when a group of instrumentalists started playing chamber music at the Church of St. Luke’s in the Fields, in Greenwich Village. It has since been a constant presence in the cultural life of New York City and neighboring Westchester (where it is the resident orchestra of the Caramoor Festival). Together with its new Principal Conductor, Bernard Labadie – an esteemed Baroque and Classical music specialist – the ensemble came up with the meritorious idea of an end-of-season festival anchored by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Spread among multiple New York locations, the festival was devised to include not only examples of his chamber and orchestral output but also the entire collection of dances that the great choreographer Paul Taylor – who passed away last year – set to Bach's music.

Bernard Labadie and the Orchestra of St. Luke's
© Adam Stoltman

Thursday evening’s performance at Carnegie's Zankel Hall was entirely devoted to Bach's secular music and, in particular, to works at least loosely related to the Brandenburg Concertos (even if none of the five masterpieces were included in the program). The start wasn’t exactly auspicious. In the Sinfonia from “Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte the two horns couldn’t cope with Labadie’s brisk tempo, often lagging behind. Intonations weren’t precise either. Given the fact that the richness brought by the added horns and oboes is precisely what differentiates the cantata’s introductory movement from the first part of the Third Brandenburg Concerto, composed years earlier, this wasn’t the right way to bring attention to Bach’s transformative powers – the evening’s stated goal.

The rendition of the Concerto for Three Violins in D Major sounded much better. The three soloists – Alexander Fortes, Mitsuru Tsubota and Naoko Tanaka, all members of the OSL – responded well to the virtuosic demands of an expansive music, blending well with the overall ensemble especially where fugal elements were involved. The concerto’s score has been lost and what the public heard is a reconstruction from the Concerto for Three Harpsichords which, it is assumed, was a later rearrangement of the original concerto for strings.

Violinists Alexander Fortes, Mitsuru Tsubota and Naoko Tanaka with Bernard Labadie
© Adam Stoltman

Similar to the concerto, the two selected orchestral suites are permeated with the same spirit of allegria as are the Brandenburgs and most of the entertainment music that Bach composed in Cöthen. There wasn’t too much sparkle though in these renditions of the dance suites. The OSL is a modern instruments ensemble as is the Quebec-based Les Violons du Roy, the other chamber orchestra that Labadie leads. It will take time for the conductor-ensemble relation to develop well enough so that questions related to historically-informed interpretations of Baroque music could supersede worries about merely following the conductor’s indications. The Orchestral Suite no. 2 in B minor is offering the flute such a predominant role that it might be considered a blend between a solo concerto and a dance suite. Flutist Elizabeth Mann acquitted herself well of her task, traversing con brio the difficult meanders of the final Badinerie. The statelier Orchestral Suite no. 1 in C major, featuring the beautiful timbral combination of two oboes and a bassoon (Melanie Feld, Kemp Jernigan and Marc Goldberg) was the evening’s highlight, the contrapuntal play between woodwinds and strings being well balanced.

Principal flutist Elizabeth Mann and Bernard Labadie
© Adam Stoltman

The evening ended with the Sinfonia in F Major, an early version of music appearing, practically unchanged, in the First Brandenburg Concerto. It was an occasion for the reappearing horns to redeem themselves in the “Trio pour les Cors de chasse”.

Leaving Zankel Hall, I was thinking about our reluctance to fully embrace the fact that Johann Sebastian Bach did often repurpose musical ideas and themes as it was customary during the Baroque era. We seem to accept the research, the hard facts, but we avoid commenting on the topic. Is it because we believe recycling is unbecoming for someone considered one of the greatest innovators in the entire history of Western music? Because we can’t accept that he couldn’t produce “fresh” music fast enough to satisfy the enormous demands of his employments? Or because we can’t believe that such a genius was treated as a mere craftsman? At the same time, why are we not bothered to see, placed next to each other, the numerous variants of the same pictures produced in the workshops of El Greco or Cranach? Why do we appreciate so much Picasso, a constant “borrower” of pre-existent imagery from predecessors and contemporaries alike? ...In fact, shouldn’t a program as the one proposed by the OSL juxtapose the sources and the derived opuses so that we can really compare them and better understand the transformations that the erudite Bernard Labadie was commenting about?