Fit for a King: J.S. Bach's Musical Offering

La Follia's well-crafted program of music by Bach exposed the energetic and dynamic Baroque spirit


Fit for a King: J.S. Bach's 'Musical Offering'

First Presbyterian Church, 8001 Mesa
April 7

Once you get past all of the wigs and corsets, the 18th century isn't nearly as stuffy as it seems. La Follia Austin Baroque proved as much this past weekend in a concert that exposed the energetic and dynamic Baroque spirit.

This well-crafted program showcased J.S. Bach's Musical Offering, a piece written for and dedicated to King Frederick the Great of Prussia. On May 7, 1747, Bach met the king – who was quite the musical enthusiast himself: a flutist, composer, and collector of instruments – at his Potsdam estate. Because Bach was well-known for his improvisational skills, Frederick sent the composer a musical theme prior to his visit. On his arrival, Bach performed a three-part improvised fugue, but when Frederick challenged him to up the ante with a six-part fugue, Bach said he would rather work on it and send it to him later. The result was the Musical Offering, a collection of works based on Frederick's original theme.

This concert was presented on instruments of the period: Baroque violin, Baroque cello, Baroque flute (traverso), and fortepiano. Playing these instruments is a bit like driving an antique car: It takes a finessed approach, but the idiosyncrasy is part of its charm. For example, controlling the pitch and color of the notes is much more difficult on the Baroque flute, but the inconsistency adds to the kaleidoscope of tonal possibilities with the instrument. On modern instruments, it's easy to "muscle through" a lot of the challenging passages (for better and for worse) with the four-wheel drive of the updated mechanisms. The result of performance on period instruments is a totally different soundscape – straight from more than 250 years ago.

In addition to this main work, the concert featured other music written by Bach, as well as one flute sonata by Frederick himself. The program was a true tour de force for director Keith Womer, who performed in every piece of the nearly two-hour program. (He also explained the scope of the concert in between pieces, as well as in a preconcert lecture.) His enthusiasm was matched by his intelligent and skillful precision on both fortepiano and organ. Cellist Jane Leggiero provided ample support through the dancing continuo lines. Flutist Marcus McGuff played with a rich sound and great sensitivity, notably in the third movement of the E major flute sonata. Violinists Go Yamamoto and Alan Austin were proficient, but sometimes lacked the sense of vitality and stage presence of their colleagues. Still, the concert marked an important effort to bring together the dynamic world of Bach through the sounds of its time, and it was a joy to hear the charm of these instruments.

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