The New York-based Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, founded in 1972, are renowned for their practice of performing without a conductor. They perform many standard orchestral works, as well as newly-commissioned works. On Saturday evening they made their Blossom Music Center debut playing four of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, as the last classical music event of the 2016 Blossom season. It was essentially a sell-out, with a very large audience assembled both inside and on the amphitheater-like lawn surrounding the covered pavilion.

Orpheus Ensemble © Matt Dine
Orpheus Ensemble
© Matt Dine

The weather did not cooperate with the performance. About a half-hour before the announced concert time, threatening clouds rolled in, and the National Weather Service issued severe thunderstorm warnings for the vicinity. As if by some sort of magical compression algorithm, the staff of Blossom Music Center herded most of the many hundreds of the lawn-sitters into general admission seats at the back of the pavilion moments before the sky let loose with thunder, lightning, wind and torrential rain. The stage managers of Blossom Music Center delayed the beginning of the concert for about 15 minutes, until the worst of the storm had passed. Even then, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s first few minutes of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G major were punctuated with claps of thunder.

The entrance of Bach’s great G major music simultaneously with the sounds of nature was an unintentional but brilliant coup de théâtre. But it also highlighted the essential problem with this concert: Blossom Music Center is simply too large for a group that at full-size contained 16 players. Although the acoustics of Blossom Pavilion’s acoustics are splendid, from a seat in the center of the pavilion, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s sound was often remote, and the harpsichord was largely inaudible throughout the concert. The strings and winds fared somewhat better.

Setting aside the acoustical limitations of the venue, the playing was of a very high standard. The members of Orpheus Chamber Orchestra were both soloists and ensemble players. The musicians played modern instruments, and ornamentation was tasteful and minimal. The tempos were brisk, clean, and clearly articulated. For the second movement of Concerto no. 2, Bach only wrote a concluding cadence, presumably with the intention that the players would devise their own slow movement. For this performance, the first violin played a very brief cadenza leading into Bach’s cadence, and directly into the third movement. The texture was translucent, making clear the thought that had gone into how each of the parts was highlighted as the movement progressed.

The Concerto no. 5 in D major, with soloists Renée Jolles (violin), Elizabeth Mann (flute), and Bradley Brookshire (harpsichord), is perhaps the most famous of the Brandenburgs, primarily for the harpsichord’s virtuosic written-out first movement cadenza. Throughout this concerto the balances among the soloists were askew, with the harpsichord greatly overbalanced by the other two. Bradley Brookshire’s interpretation of the cadenza was one of very great freedom of pulse and rhythm, creating phrases within Bach’s stream of notes. The heat and humidity wreaked havoc on the harpsichord’s tuning, especially when Brookshire added the instrument’s four-foot stop at the end of the cadenza. The second movement trio for soloists and continuo was a model of flexibility of pulse and phrasing. The third movement Gigue was delicate and marked a stylistic transition from the Baroque recapitulation to the Classical recapitulation.

From the brilliance of the second concerto, the second half of the program opened with The Concerto No. 6 in B flat major with the dark hues and close textures of two violas, cello, and continuo. The sound was velvety smooth. The intricate counterpoint of the third-movement Gigue was especially attractive in the vitality of its tempo and articulation.

The Concerto no. 2 in F major closed the concert with the largest ensemble of the evening, including soloists Kyu-Young Ki (violin), Elizabeth Mann (flute), Roni Gal-Ed (oboe), and Carl Albach (trumpet). Since the rest of the concertos had been so unanimous in decisions about ornamentation, it seemed curious that the violin, flute, and oboe soloists here made different choices for their individual ornaments in analogous passages in the second movement. Some of the descending appogiaturas were dotted, others were even. Carl Albach deserves special mention for his performance of the impossibly high trumpet and florid part in the last movement.

The players came back for an encore, Bach’s Air from the Orchestral Suite in D major (often known as the “Air on the G String”) which was given a serene and moving performance, almost as if time had stopped for a few moments.