ORONO — The Bangor Symphony Orchestra’s 125th season kicked off on Valentine’s Day with an online concert, “Bach to Bloch.” Recorded on stage at the Collins Center for the Arts on Jan. 31, The performance, which comprised a pared-down ensemble of the orchestra’s strings, featured pianist Spencer Myer. The BSO’s Music Director Lucas Richman conducted the concert.
Instead of the program being presented in chronological order, as suggested by the title, the works were performed in reverse order, with Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 leading off, and J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Harpsichord No. 1 in D minor closing the concert. This choice in program placement underscored Bloch’s use of the concerto grosso, which had not been in style for 150 years, and the Baroque compositional forms that serve as the work’s structure. Bach’s concerto, on the other hand, is forward-looking, since at the time of its composition the use of the keyboard as a solo instrument was new.
As noted in Bloch’s score, the piano part of the Concerto Grosso is obbligato, and for this performance the piano was placed at the rear, emphasizing its role as part of the orchestra. The brief first movement, Prelude, was dramatic and authoritative, with percussive chords energetically propelling the music. The second movement, titled Dirge, was poignant and ethereal, with affecting solos by violinist Angel Hernandez. The third movement, Pastorale and Rustic Dances, followed without pause, opening quietly before breaking out in a set of boisterous dance tunes. Following Baroque convention, the last movement was a five-voice fugue, with an angular theme worked out section by section and leading to an exuberant conclusion.
Between the program’s two major works was the second movement from Florence Price’s “String Quartet No. 1 in G major.” Price, the first African American female to be recognized as a symphonic composer, was a pianist, organist, and teacher whose music is enjoying a revival. As Maestro Richman remarked in his pre-concert comments, her music is “incredibly lyrical,” firmly based in tradition but with a unique voice that incorporates elements drawn from spirituals, blues, jazz, and other unmistakably American idioms. The “Andante Moderato” movement from the string quartet, arranged for string orchestra, was played simply, with sweetness and humor.
For Bach’s concerto, the piano moved to stage center. Spencer Myer’s playing was crisp and tasteful. The advantages of a piano as solo instrument were demonstrated in the opening movement, as Myer was able to shape phrases with dynamic variation and sparing use of the sustain pedal, neither of which is possible with a harpsichord. Myer drew out a beautiful singing line, with lovely occasional ornamentation, in the second movement, Adagio, which Richman called an aria for the keyboard’s right hand. The concert ended with a peppy flourish in the final fast movement.
Congratulations to the BSO for bringing its music to an isolated and culturally hungry audience during this time of pandemic. The orchestra rose to the occasion, with programming that were easily adapted to the requirements for safety, and excellent video production that allowed views of the orchestra not possible in a live performance. “Bach to Bloch” is available for streaming at a reasonable ticket cost, for a whole month, at the BSO website: https://bangorsymphony.uscreen.io/.