LACO concert series resurrects baroque music

Everything comes back in style if enough time passes: Vintage is now chic and Baroque is back.

J.S Bach was sometimes considered “too old fashioned” during his lifetime, but the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s five-concert series, “Baroque Conversations,” offers a fresh take on Bach’s music in a uniquely personal setting. And though Bach’s music was often written for formal events, his pieces are just as at home in the Colburn School’s Zipper Concert Hall as it was in Frederick the Great’s palace.

Though the LACO has a history of innovative performances, the Baroque Conversations concert exceeded expectations.  Named after musical philanthropist Richard D. Colburn, the Colburn School pays homage to a great supporter of local arts. Aside from being centrally located in Downtown Los Angeles, the Colburn school has special significance for the orchestra: As a co-founder of the orchestra, Colburn provided the financial backing that helped make LACO possible.  And it’s a good thing he did: The musicians’ stage presence, the intimate setting and the delightful music made the evening enjoyable for classical music buffs and first-timers alike.

Concert host Allan Vogel, in particular, added personality to the evening of baroque music. Vogel has been LACO’s principal oboist since 1974 and is on Thornton School of Music’s faculty.  Despite his impressive list of awards and vast knowledge of baroque music, he kept the tone  of the night casual, even adding in a few musical jokes.

He opened the show by asking how many musicians it takes to play a trio sonata.  Despite what the name implies, Bach’s trio sonatas call for anywhere from one to five musicians.  The “trio” refers to the number of “voices” in the sonata, not the number of players. In LACO’s case, two instruments share the bass line while two others play the solo parts. Demonstrating his flair for the academic, Vogel informed the audience that placing two instruments on the bass line helps the lower “voice” come through clearer and balance with the two soloists. In fact, his continued rapport with the audience added plenty of useful info to the experience; he helped place the music in context, giving historical background as well as musical details.

The concert opened with Bach’s “Trio Sonata in C Major for Oboe and Violin (orig. for Two Violins), BWV 1037.” This piece featured Allan Vogel on oboe and Margaret Batjer on violin, with Armen Ksajikian and Patricia Mabee on the bass line playing cello and harpsichord respectively. The opening sonata has an intriguing history; some scholars credit this sonata to Bach’s student, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. Yet Vogel refuted this claim, saying, “we musicians know it’s Bach,” citing the sonata’s musical essence as uniquely Bach’s.

The sonata’s four movements alternate between slow and quick tempos, which keeps the piece lively.  After opening the first movement with picturesque melodies and sustained oboe notes, the second movement, Alla breve provides a change of pace.  The second movement includes two themes but also features episodes of pure counterpoint or an absence of the theme altogether.  This jaunty movement transitions into the mellow third movement, Largo.  The first selections ends with an upbeat and rhythmically complex gigue.

Next, the musical quartet reshuffles for Bach’s “Trio Sonata in G major for Two Flutes, BWV 1039.” Rearranged three times by Bach and written in “the innocent key of G major,” this sonata features David Shostac and Sandy Hughes on flute.  Described as “a joyous romp,” the second selection evokes images of sunny afternoons and shade mottled gardens.

Vogel announced a slight program change and the musicians proceeded with Roland Kato’s arrangement of Bach’s “Trio Sonata in C major for Oboe and Viola (orig. Organ Sonata), BWV 529.”  This piece brought violist Roland Kato and bassoonist Kenneth Munday to the stage and also departed from the four-part form, instead including only three movements: two upbeat with a slower one sandwiched in the middle. Though the first and third movement shared the name Allegro, they were distinct entities.  The first Allegro had a day-dreaming quality to it while the second rendition sounded more carefree and cheerful.  In between the bright Allegros, was Largo. This soothing second movement featured rich viola lines and had a luxurious and almost-lullaby-like quality.

LACO finished the evening with a piece originally written for Frederick the Great, “Trio Sonata in C minor for Flute and Violin from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079.” Based around a chromatic theme given by Frederick the Great, this sonata was Bach’s last piece of chamber music. He wove Frederick’s theme into each movement and made a slight departure from his baroque style in the third movement.  This sonata provided a regal and resounding close to the concert.

After the concert, the LACO musicians answered audience members’ questions. As Vogel noted, Bach’s music readily lends itself to adaptation and interpretation and the post-concert talk gave the musicians a chance to share approaches to Bach.  Keeping with the cozy atmosphere of the concert, the musicians also shared their feelings about the sonatas and about baroque music in general.  This chat provided a fitting close to the Baroque Conversations’ Series first concert.