Nobody has yet devised a more congenial concert companion than the six
“Brandenburg” Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach, and it’s not likely that
anyone ever will. That being so, it should come as no surprise that UCLA’s
Royce Hall was packed to the rafters on Friday night, to hear Iona Brown and
the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in their elegant, bewitching performances of
all six of these marvelous orchestral essays.
A word, first, about that current bugaboo known as “authentic performance.”
If you look through the latest record catalogue, you’ll find several dozen
complete “Brandenburg” recordings: symphony orchestras, ensembles of
instruments from Bach’s own time, even an electronic version or two. The Los
Angeles Chamber Orchestra, made up as it is of sturdy studio freelancers, who
play Bach by night to purge their souls after playing panty-hose commercials by
day, makes no attempt to preserve the “authentic” sound of early instruments.
There are, after all, many other ways to honor the authentic spirit of old
The performances Friday night handsomely illustrated the best of those ways.
Brown, conducting the ensemble while playing first violin (a perfectly
authentic touch, by the way) still allowed her group such modern expressive
techniques as crescendos, slowdowns at the ends of movements, and a marvelous
way of keeping the great Bach tunes aloft.
Yes, there were points where “authentic” instruments might have helped
clarify some inner voices. In the first movement of the first of these
concertos, the horns play a triplet figure to conflict with the eighth-note
passages in the rest of the orchestra, and chances are that no power on earth
can make that particular effect audible with the heavy tone of modern
instruments. In the first movement of the last of these concertos, however, the
solo violas in modern-instrument performances are nearly always buried by the
rumblings of cellos and basses, as they were this time. There is no question
that a lighter tone from the lower instruments would help to improve
Some of Friday’s playing, therefore, did fall heir to these performance
hazards. But there were so many redeeming features — the burbling flutes in
No. 4, the deliciously squawking oboes in the last movement of No. 1, and the
over-all vitality of Brown’s visions of these wondrous works — that it would
be downright mean-spirited to dwell upon passing deficiencies. It was a great
night for Bach and, therefore, for us all.

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