Bach Society Orchestra’s Japan Benefit

April 13, 2011

The Bach Society Orchestra gave a benefit concert to a sold out Sanders theater on March 26th, with proceeds going to the relief efforts after the earthquake in Japan. The change of venue—BachSoc usually performs in Paine Hall—was a challenge for the small orchestra, but it brought them a large, appreciative audience that gave roaring applause between movements. Besides loving the orchestra’s playing, the audience was moved by the concert’s dedication to a cause and to the memory of a BachSoc alum, and soloist Ryu Goto ’11 stole our hearts with his exquisitely expressive playing.

Mendelssohn’s overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was a lovely atmospheric opener, and the piece where Sanders helped the orchestra the most. The light fairy theme was playful and seductive with good phrasing, contrast and dynamic control, with music director Yuga Cohler ’11 providing strong leadership from the podium. Despite slight tuning issues at the very start in the strings and woodwinds, both sections recovered and set the magical tone of the opening with energetic runs. When the strings were less exposed, the communication between cello and violin sections was excellent, and the bombastic cellos combined with the remarkably strong brass in the second section for a rousing performance. The closing section was lyrical and expressive, with a beautiful soft section in the violins at the end and smooth transitions throughout.

The story of BachSoc’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D is the story of Ryu Goto’s musicianship. His performance didn’t allow for anything but complete audience engagement, with a stunning combination of musicality and stage presence. Always at ease during his playing, Goto was constantly watching and smiling at the audience, inviting us to share the piece with him with exquisitely sensitive facial and musical expressiveness both. His shifts between moods were rapid and seamless—he was equally at home letting loose a flurry of notes in extraordinarily difficult technical passages and bringing out the sweet, flowing character of other passages. Goto and Cohler had wonderful chemistry, clearly working together with a shared interpretation throughout. The orchestra was a little less seamless: there were tuning issues in the brass and woodwinds, the second movement lagged rhythmically, and they had some difficulty with the passages when they were accompanying Goto. Their performance of the main themes of each movement, however, was excellent, and they managed the tempi changes well while charging excitedly into the fast sections. Goto’s playing helped and inspired the orchestra, too—they were expressive and intense when echoing themes Goto had just played, and when Goto really went wild the orchestra went along.

A good fraction of the audience left after the Tchaikovsky, and judging from the performance of the Brahms and the evening’s highlight of Ryu Goto’s playing, that choice made sense to us—we wish the orchestra had chosen to end with the Tchaikovsky. Brahms’s 2nd Symphony was an ambitious choice, but perhaps too much so—the orchestra did an admirable job with it given the constraints on them, but it’s not suitable for an orchestra the size of this one working in Sanders Theater. This pastoral symphony requires extreme lyricism, rock solid tuning, and a general fullness of sound that the orchestra is not quite equal to, though it’s hardly their own fault. This rendition felt like it simply unwound from beginning to end in a fairly mechanical manner, with a noticeable lack of expressive energy and emotion compared to the other pieces played. The tuning issues in the first movement with the horn and trombones stood out, and the woodwinds and strings were left quite exposed for most of the symphony. Still, Cohler was clear and expressive in his conducting, cuing and guiding well. He drew out the orchestra’s dynamic and metric expression, and helped them bring out textural highlights like the bouncy opening of the third movement. The group’s communication remained solid, allowing for a warm sound in the violin section during the second movement and a solid earthy sound in the woodwinds during the third movement.

Overall, BachSoc gave an enjoyable performance, despite general tuning issues and understandable difficulty holding up the standards for musicality and expressiveness Ryu Goto set. We’d love to hear them playing in Sanders again with ambitious repertoire like this.

The Harvard Art Review Music Board

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