REVIEW Bach's "Brandenburg" Concerto No. 5 was the wild highlight of an evening with Laurence Cummings.
Along with digestion, acquisition is said to be the focus of so-called Black Friday. Neither process would seem to promote musical engagement. Yet Friday's all-baroque program by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at Wayzata Community Church -- one of the best concerts of its kind in a long while -- drew a capacity crowd not noticeably dulled by the day's preoccupations.
Deftly juggling duties as director and harpsichordist was Britain's Laurence Cummings, in his Minnesota debut. Born in 1968, Cummings has emerged as one of his generation's leading baroque-era specialists, at home in both opera house and concert hall.
There is nothing routine in Cummings' approach to his repertoire. Before the orchestra Friday, he was vigor incarnate, a man possessed by the music's rhythmic impulse and its play of moods. Bounding from his bench like a jack-in-the-box, one hand on the keyboard as the other sliced the air, he had the SPCO sounding as stylish as any period band, modern sonorities notwithstanding; the strings, in particular, combined clarity and warmth to a rare degree.
In a sagely plotted program that was billed as a primer on the early concerto (and that might equally well have been dubbed "Music Bach Knew"), memorable moments were many. Highest honors went to Kathryn Greenbank, the SPCO's superlative principal oboist, for her gorgeous phrasing in the melancholic Adagio of Alessandro Marcello's C-minor Concerto. Not far behind was the second movement, marked "Grave," of Arcangelo Corelli's Concerto grosso, Op. 6, No. 3 -- to my ear a stronger piece than Corelli's Op. 6, No. 4, which opened the program. (The same composer's seasonally apt "Christmas" Concerto might easily have been substituted for either of these.)
But it was Bach's "Brandenburg" Concerto No. 5, with its disruptive first-movement harpsichord cadenza, that lit up the night. In this wild, 65-bar solo, which musicologist Susan McClary calls "one of the most outlandish displays in music history," the harpsichordist, previously relegated to a supporting role, effectively "hijacks" the piece, tasting, in McClary's words, "the exhilaration as well as the risks of upward mobility."
Cummings, violinist Ruggero Allifranchini and flutist Julia Bogorad-Kogan played their parts to perfection, though the crimson-clad Bogorad-Kogan, as if acting out her frustration with the uppity keyboard player, managed to block Cummings from view throughout.
Larry Fuchsberg is a Minneapolis writer.