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Brandenburg for the holidays as the SPCO plays in Wayzata, St. Paul and Minneapolis

The fifth of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos is renowned for bringing the harpsichord out of the supportive shadows into a lead role, to the point where many regard it as a seminal work in the development of the keyboard concerto. It is thus a natural fit as the centerpiece for a program organized by conductor and harpsichordist Laurence Cummings this weekend in his first appearance with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Cummings, the music director of both the Tilford Bach Society and the London Handel Festival in England, has surrounded the Bach performance with concerto works from the Baroque era. There are two pieces by Arcangelo Corelli that appear on either side of the Brandenburg. Daniel Fesenfeld’s program notes describe the opening Concerto grosse in D, Op. 4, No. 6,  as “a quintessential example of the Roman approach to the concerto; this is the ‘agree or work together’ variety, in which the soloists and sections contribute different colors to a combined, unified sound. The effect is not unlike the chiaroscuro technique popular with painters of the day, in which strong contrasts of light and dark intensify a single image.”

Fesenfeld contrasts that agreeable approach to the “fight or dispute mode” of a lead instrument pitted against the established strings, as occurs in the ensuing piece, Alessandro Marcello’s Oboe Concerto in C Minor, which will be played by the SPCO’s Kathryn Greenbank. After the Brandenburg, a second Corelli concerto  and Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins, Cello and Orchestra will be performed, the latter done in the “fight or dispute mode” among the violins. Cummings returns to Bach for the program finale, Orchestral Suite No. 4.

I haven’t found any direct explanation for why the Brandenburg Concertos have become synonymous with the holidays, but the easiest answer is their festive quality, the lilt and pomp and accessible melodies that seem consonant with the spirit and traditions of the holidays.

Listen to this opening to the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and you’ll hear what I mean.

And for that matter, the Vivaldi piece on the program has a kindred festivity.

Laurence Cummings and the SPCO play Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 58 p.m. Friday at the Wayzata Community Church, 8 p.m. Saturday at the United Church of Christ in St. Paul, and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Ted Mann Concert Hall. Tickets are $10-$25 Friday and Saturday and $10-$40 on Sunday.

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