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Los Angeles Debut: Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

Los Angeles
Royce Hall, UCLA
05/18/2005 -  
Georg Frideric Handel: Suite from the opera “Almira”
Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto in D-minor for Two Oboes, Strings, and Continuo, RV 535
Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra in D-minor, BWV 1043
Johann Sebastian Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C-major, BWV 1066
Francesco Geminiani: Concerto Grosso No. 12 in D-minor (after Corelli’s Violin Sonata Op. 5, No 12, “Follia”)

Georg Kalweit & Stephan Mai (concertmasters)
Midori Seiler (solo violin)
Xenia Loffler (oboe)
Michael Bosch (oboe)
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

The renowned chamber ensemble Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin offered a long awaited Southern California debut at Royce Hall at the University of California at Los Angeles this past May 15th. Although much of the balcony was empty, the audience was filled with 18th century music aficionados gathered for one of Europe’s hottest baroque bands. The principal critics for the both the LA Times and the LA Weekly were also in attendance, even though pianist Andre Watts was giving a recital at Disney Hall across town. No one was disappointed.

The ensemble clearly has a highly developed and urbane approach to performance, informed by scholarship and the study of authentic period technique that has been in vogue for the last several decades. But at the same time their style is very contemporary, as hip, witty and polished as one would expect from youthful 21st century Berliners. The entire chamber orchestra played their instruments standing up, like an orchestra made up of soloists. The only stationary performers were the seated harpsichord, lute and cello, and the double bass. All of the other instruments changed their positions on stage for each piece, with no conductor but distinct soloists taking the lead each time. They share this modus operandi with other peppery ancient music groups, such as the Venice Baroque Orchestra. But the Berlin group’s technique was more dancing than dramatic, more German, more droll and cerebral than the impassioned Venetians. The most striking aspect of the Berliner’s performance was that it felt utterly fresh, as if they were playing the ancient “rediscovered” music in the same way that a maverick 21st century composer would hope to have his or her music performed. The music felt authentic, ancient, and avant-garde all in the same moment.

The group opened with a rarely performed Suite from Handel’s opera Almira. They were dancing, sprightly, the ensemble robust and extremely well rehearsed. They appeared to enjoy the music immensely, and each performer seemed to be precisely aware of every note played by the others. But the sound was a little slight for the cavern of Royce Hall. The gorgeous antique lute sounded distant. A baroque church or the Salle Gaveau in Paris would have made for a better concert. In the Theatre du Bouffes du Nord, this group would be spectacular.

As Vivaldi’s Concerto in D-minor for Two Oboes began, the ensemble took their lead from the violin concertmaster and the harpsichord. But then the oboes took up the melody and moved into the vanguard, as if handed the baton by an invisible conductor. The harmony of voices between the oboes in the slow passages was subtle and luxurious. It would be hard to imagine a more compelling performance of this piece. The dry baroque timbre of the strings was ideal, the articulation rich and precise, overflowing with vigor.

The next piece, Bach’s familiar Concerto for Two Violins, defined the cutting edge of contemporary international baroque technique. The style of play was entirely organic but carefully measured, highly developed and steeped in the period. The ensemble was taught, but not quite driven. There was no singular mind or entity behind the architecture of the piece, but the orchestra created a completely coherent musical universe, a sound world full of charm and vigor. Both the young and the older players were rigorous but lively, refined but completely at ease. Each of the two violin soloists, Georg Kalweit and Midori Seiler, took the lead as he or she carried the melody, from alternate sides of the stage. This was truly chamber music with the reach of an orchestra, the whole even greater than the sum of its brilliant parts.

After the intermission, the players changed position on the stage once again, with concertmaster Stephan Mai brightly leading the group in Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C-major. Each performer was vivid, revealing an utter mastery of the music at the level of each individual. In this piece the charismatic oboes were again outstanding, the bassoon supple, muscular, full of character. The musicians even seemed to dance in unison.

The final piece on the program, a Concerto Grosso by Francesco Geminiani was adapted from a sonata by Arcangello Corelli. Violinist Georg Kalweit took charge once again, and led the ensemble wildly through the mad “Follia” theme and variations. Both the violin solos and the baroque guitar were thrilling. A standing ovation rippled through the hall, bringing most of the graying, specialist crowd to its feet. The encore, an “Air Bourree” by Ehrlebach Hennrick, was even wilder, with an accelerating ecstasy of col legno percussion, a finale of rhythmic bows madly drumming on violins and violas.

Thomas Aujero Small



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