Opening their new season Saturday night at the First Congregational Church, Trevor Stephenson's Madison Bach Musicians played a bold program of unusually broad scope, in chronology and style.
It began with Arcangelo Corelli's Concerto Grosso in D, No. Four of his Opus 6 dozen. Corelli's writing for strings is suave and polished, qualities which the 12 players mustered for this concert realized handsomely.
More ambitious in the resources required is Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C. For this, the string players were augmented by two oboists and one bassoon. Period instrument playing meant, of course, that the string players used instruments with mellow and responsive gut strings, but the period wind sounds added a particularly rich and assertive dimension to the ensemble. There were times when I thought just a little more lilt might have brightened up the sequence of dance movements, but first violinist Kangwon Kim did an accomplished job in leading the ensemble from her desk.
I was concerned to hear little contribution from Stephenson's harpsichord by way of continuo realization. But comparing notes with others made me recognize that my impression depended greatly on where I was sitting -- always a tricky variable to be reckoned with.
The second half began with one of Vivaldi's many concertos for solo bassoon and strings, written for a star player in the composer's brilliant all-girl orchestra in Venice. This one, in B-flat, bears the subtitle of "La notte" ("Night") and is a surprisingly vivid description of a spell of nightmares, followed by repose and then joyful awakening. For this, the soloist was no less than Marc Vallon, the UW music school's internationally acclaimed bassoon player and teacher. His dazzling technique and full-blooded tone were a particular joy to hear, dominating a string group of just four players, one per part, plus harpsichord (now much more audible).
Under Vallon, now as energetic conductor, the full company assembled to perform the last and latest work on the program, Haydn's Symphony No. 26 in D minor, known as the "Lamentation" symphony from the powerful quotation of a Gregorian-chant melody in its middle movement. The two oboes and two valveless horns filled out the newer sound of Classical orchestration. But most notable was the way the dozen string players came together as a truly integrated string band. In that sense, they vindicated Stephenson's bravery in carrying his period-instrument group beyond the Baroque and into the next phase of instrumental evolution.
The entire concert, indeed, was another lesson in just how much the exploration of period-instrument sound can expand understanding and appreciation of 18th-century music. Particularly helpful in that regard, too, was Stephenson's pre-concert lecture; these should never be missed. His lively but penetrating comments illuminated valuably just how the period sounds affect the conception and execution of the music, adding greatly to the audience's understanding of it.
The concert will be repeated on Sunday, Oct. 3, at 3 p.m., preceded by the lecture at 2:15 p.m. Madison Bach Musicians' next program, offering three early Bach cantatas, will be given at Grace Episcopal Church on Nov. 20-21.