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SPCO reprises two Brandenburg Concertos for the holidays

The six Brandenburg Concertos, composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, hit the sweet spot between almost universal popular appeal and, especially for their time, cutting-edge creativity, which is why they occupy such an iconic part of the classical music canon.

As often happens with festive cultural touchstones, the Brandenburgs have become associated with the holiday season (albeit not on the level of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite or, the overtly themed Christmas work that is Handel’s “Messiah”).

Two years ago in mid-December, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra delighted audiences by performing all six concertos, which are remarkably distinct in their own right.

This weekend, the SPCO is reprising the 4th and 5th concertos, scores familiar enough to be performed without a conductor, in intimate settings that will envelope listeners in the full flavor of the 10 musicians present. The Music Room, located on the third floor of the Hamm Building in downtown St. Paul, will host the Friday night and Sunday afternoon concerts.St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, at Summit Avenue and Milton Street, will be the venue on Saturday night. Not surprisingly, all three performances are sold out.

The orchestra’s choice of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto is especially good news for harpsichord fans, as Bach, himself a formidable harpsichordist, prominently features the instrument here. The SPCO’s Layton James, who handled the assignment with élan two years ago, will again be at the keyboard.

The 4th Concerto favors the flutes and virtuoso violin. Julia Bogorad-Kogan and Alicia McQuerrey are the flautists, and violinist Steven Copes is likely to pick up the duties performed two years ago by Nina Tso-Nin Fan.

Opening the show will be Mozart’s Divertimento in E Flat, one of the earliest compositions for string trio (violin, viola, cello), and Mozart’s only finished contribution to the form. Like the Brandenburgs, it is lively and brisk and a wonderful complement to a holiday season that suddenly seems more tangible with snow on the ground.

Here is a harpsichord-centric rendition of the 5th Concerto, performed by Gustav Leonhardt and his 18th Century hair.

Here is the presto Third Movement of the 4th Concerto.

And here is the (audio only) Third Movement of Mozart’s Divertimento, performed by the Grumiaux Trio.

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, performing the Brandenburg Concertos No. 4 and 5,  at 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Music Room, and at 8 p.m. Saturday at the United Church of Christ in St. Paul. Tickets are $15 in the Music Room and $10-$25 at the church. Sold out.

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