In just a few seasons, the Minnesota Bach Ensemble under the direction of Andrew Altenbach has created a viable niche for itself in Twin Cities musical life, presenting lively, thoughtfully-programmed concerts before a sizable and growing audience.
Disputes over Baroque performance practice have cooled in recent years. We no longer hear of fist fights breaking out over the issue of recorders versus the modern flute, for instance. Bach wrote for recorders. Altenbach’s group uses flutes and other modern instruments. Depending on the repertoire, the ensemble numbers between 10 and 16 players.
On the other hand, for the ensemble’s performance of Bach’s Cantata No. 127 at the MacPhail Center in Minneapolis on Saturday, Altenbach used a vocal quartet — one singer per part — rather than a chorus, a practice that remains controversial. No doubt there are choir directors who consider a quartet inadequate in a piece like this, and yet the vocal sound Saturday was full and expressive.
Altenbach is obviously well-schooled in what is now considered early-music orthodoxy. He favors transparent textures, relatively fast tempos, strong beats and restrained vibrato. The special bounce and lilt he enforced on the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, which opened the concert, suggested, too, that he’s aware of how important dance rhythms are to Bach’s music.
The space itself, though, proved to be a problem. Antonello Hall, a pleasure to look at, is so bright acoustically that the strings of the ensemble when playing full blast turned shrill. In contrast, the harpsichord could barely be heard.
The guest soloist in a program that was repeated Sunday afternoon was Jorja Fleezanis, former concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra (1989-2009), who is now Professor of Violin at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. A revered figure here whose influence on the orchestra’s string section can still be felt — in its expanded color and range of expression — Fleezanis remains a formidable solo player.
Displaying her usual full-bodied, eloquent tone and nimble technique, Fleezanis played the solo part in the Brandenburg, joined by flutists Roma Duncan and Immanuel Davis, and concluded with the Violin Concerto in E Major. Outer movements were appropriately robust, and the Adagio had a heavenly serenity.
Linh Kauffman gave exquisite voice to the soprano aria in the cantata (with Basil Reeve contributing the lovely oboe solo) and was joined by alto Krista Costin, tenor Nick Chalmers and bass Philip Zawisza. Their blend was uneven. Either Zawisza sang too loudly or the hall was playing an acoustic trick.
Just after intermission, Altenbach and 10 of his fine string players gave a nod to Bach’s second — and probably most gifted — son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, playing with lush tone his Symphony No. 4 in A Major.
Michael Anthony is a longtime Minneapolis music critic.