Baroque is in the air in Atlanta.
Thursday night at Symphony Hall, music director Nathalie Stutzmann led a vastly reduced complement of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a recital of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. Dubbed “Bach and Friends,” the concert is the start of a mini Bach festival at the ASO.
Stutzmann is back next week to conduct Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” a three-hour sacred masterwork for orchestra, vocal soloists and chorus that will pack the Symphony Hall stage with musicians. Last week, pianist Ling-Ju Lai and violinist Rachel Ostler took an evening of Bach to First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta; Friday night, the musicians of Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church performed Bach’s “St. John Passion.” Not to be outdone, the Atlanta Opera takes up shop March 31 at Morehouse College to perform an opera by the overlooked Black composer Joseph Bologne who bridged the baroque and classical periods.
For Thursday’s concert, Stutzmann programmed 14 short works — the majority written by Bach, with a handful from Vivaldi and Handel — to create an intermission-less, 80-minute evening. It’s an inventive way to immerse an audience (and an orchestra) in compositions that wouldn’t normally highlight a program. Many of these short pieces, if they are included at all on concerts, receive short shrift as the appetizer to larger works. Hearing them in a Bach Rock Block context, one after the other with infrequent pauses between the pieces, proved a rare treat.
Stutzmann has a stated interest in bringing more baroque music to the symphony, and it’s easy to see why. Conducting without a baton or a podium, on a level with the musicians, she felt as one with the ensemble — for brief moments, she swayed back and forth, eyes closed, singing a melody line to herself. Maybe she was not more expressive with her conducting than usual, but it certainly seemed like she moved more fluidly and dance-like as she demonstrated to the musicians the music she wanted to hear. The ASO, for the most part, responded to her every direction, though on the whole, pieces with slower tempos could feel languid, lacking forward momentum.
While the music can feel a world or two away from contemporary sounds usually heard at the hall — and the hall itself seemed too large for such a set of courtly chamber tunes — most of the repertoire hasn’t been heard often from the ASO. The evening’s program highlighted the differences in styles and approaches among contemporaries. The evening also highlighted the musicians of the ASO. Principal flute Christina Smith performed the skipping “Badinerie” from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor with a light, bouncy tone despite the frenzied pace. Earlier in the show, concertmaster David Coucheron joined Justin Bruns, Jun-Ching Lin and Anastasia Agapova for a thrilling rendition of Concerto for Four Violins in B Minor by Vivaldi. Oboists Zachary Boeding and Samuel Nemec also received plenty of time to shine, especially during a mini duet with cellists Daniel Laufer and Karen Freer during Handel’s Concerto Grosso in G Minor.
The middle of the program featuring Bach’s friends Handel and Vivaldi fared better than the Bach-exclusive opening and closing sections of the performance. From the heraldic “Entrance of the Queen of Sheba” from Handel’s “Solomon” to Vivaldi’s Concerto for Strings in G Minor, this middle section offered the most variety, and the musicians sounded the most passionate about the material.
Immersive programs like this are important for an audience that rarely hears such sounds from its orchestra. While the evening came across a little as a baroque crash course (for audience and musicians alike), it was a fitting re-introduction to the spirit of the 1700s and a wonderful lead in to next week’s “St. Matthew Passion.”
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
8 p.m. March 25. $41-$120. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.
3 p.m. March 26. $50-$90. Hodgson Concert Hall, University of Georgia, 230 River Road, Athens. 706-542-4400, pac.uga.edu.