March 5, 2002

Chamber Orchestra lends spring to often-heavy Bach

by Steven Brown | Sentinel Classical Music Critic

WINTER PARK -- There was no reason to expect that a Russian string ensemble would shed light on what the Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra made of Bach's St. John Passion. But that's what happened.

The Chamber Orchestra Kremlin included a J.S. Bach concerto in its program Saturday afternoon for the Bach Festival of Winter Park. Its vibrant, ringing style of playing was decidedly modern -- no imitation of the lean tones of the period-instrument groups. The group's Bach was still buoyant, though.

A lot of that had to do with the way the lower instruments carried on. They sketched in their parts clearly but lightly -- sometimes, they barely gave a nudge to each note.

Maybe that stood out so because a few hours later, the soprano soloist in the St. John -- Sharla Nafziger -- sang about "joy-lightened footsteps." Nafziger's voice flowed so gracefully it practically got the idea across by itself, never mind about the words.

But for the most part, Bach moved with a heavier tread Saturday night. The choir and orchestra had little that was akin to the Russians' spring.

While the St. John -- which tells the story of the crucifixion -- is far different from that concerto, it still needed momentum. Some of the performers did their parts to give it life.

Tenor Scot Weir delivered the narration with fluency and crystal-clear diction. His touches of expressiveness -- such as the tenderness in his voice when he described the mourning Virgin Mary -- went far beyond simple storytelling too. Soprano Nafziger sang with a poise and silvery tone that captured the optimism of her first aria -- about following Jesus with those joyful footsteps -- and the pathos of her lament on Christ's death.

Laura Pudwell gave the mezzo-soprano arias a wealth of deep tone and long-breathed lyricism. In the tenor aria likening Christ's wounds to sunbeams piercing the sky, Colin Ainsworth spun out ethereal tones that painted the picture. As Jesus, baritone Edmund LeRoy sang with feeling and understanding, though he wasn't always in tune. The choir, led by conductor John V. Sinclair, captured the devoutness of its hymns by matching its warmth, softness or fervor to the words.

But the choir and orchestra made the big choruses at the beginning and climax sound thick. The choir's effortful singing kept the fierce numbers depicting the bloodthirsty mob from generating much electricity. Baritone Russell Franks sang his numbers resonantly, but his awkwardness negated the effect. Except for the flowing flute solos, the orchestra's contributions to the arias were either clumsy -- especially the overbearing oboes that competed with Pudwell -- or bland.

There was nothing clumsy or bland about the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin. Right from the little flick of an embellishment that launched Giachino Rossini's String Sonata No. 3, the opening number of its concert, the 18 players were unified down to the tiniest detail.

Whether the music needed dash, elegance, surging melody or a gossamer pianissimo, conductor Misha Rachlevsky and his players produced it. And they made it sound simple.

They filled the Rossini sonata with spirit. The first movement was crisp and jaunty, and the players tossed off the finale's whirlwinds with ease. The "Andante" didn't have as refined a sound, but it sang out smoothly.

In Bach -- the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor -- soloists Leonard Eskin and Anton Shelepov swept Bach along with boldness and agility. In the "Largo," they poured out ardentsound while weaving the two strands with a deftness that kept the music from turning to syrup.

And the group relished Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. That came through not only in the vitality and full-voiced lyricism, but in the spontaneity and delicious nuances Rachlevsky injected. The "Waltz" welled up ardently, then drew back to a whisper before the group sank into the dance again. The violins took their time caressing the melody of the "Elegy"; when the violas had their turn, they glowed.

Virtuosity was on display even in a take-off on that Bach concerto. The opening theme metamorphosed into an up-tempo version of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," and "Ain't She Sweet" popped up soon thereafter. The finale veered into the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. And the three players handled the spoof with as much flair as they did the real thing.