January 16, 2014|By Alan G. Artner, Special to the Tribune
One part of the purpose behind Wednesday night’s Orchestra Hall concert by Baroque Band was, as guest-conductor Ian Watson said, “to bring some Mediterranean warmth” to the winter landscape by presenting works “hugely varied in tone and color.”
Another part was to do that primarily through examples of the Concerto grosso, the Italian form of the concerto that dominated composition in Watson’s native England during the 18th Century – hence, the program’s title “Under the Influence!”
But recent events also gave an unplanned, unannounced purpose, which was to demonstrate how the right music played under the right leadership could affirm the viability of the group after the departure of several longtime members.
That all this resulted in performances that frequently had both players and listeners smiling was a credit to everyone involved, not least to the six supporters providing housing for out-of-city players who presumably will help make up the band in the future.
Among other involvements, Watson is artistic director of the Arcadia Players, a period-instrument ensemble in western Massachusetts, and the principal keyboard artist of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, the oldest continuing performing group in the United States. On Wednesday he conducted standing at a raised harpsichord, giving cues emphatically with body, head and hands.
The pleas and announcements that give so desperate an air to these concerts were replaced by a few spoken lines on each of the selections – usually before, occasionally after – to supplement program notes clearly written before the program was firmed up.
Watson’s bluff, sometimes facetious delivery was of a piece with the rhythmically firm, robust sound he elicited in concertos – by Charles Avison, Francesco Durante, Francesco Geminiani and Pietro Locatelli — for several soloists set against a string orchestra. Seldom did the playing achieve fine-toned delicacy, but it did have touches of fantasy, some humor and a steady, overall pressure that often became trenchant.
As ever, there were moments of wavering pitch but none of the band’s looseness and clatter. Strong highlights came in Antonio Vivaldi’s short opening Sinfonia “Il coro de la muse” and from the vigorously engaged solo violin and cello playing in Geminiani’s irresistible “La Folia.”