Baltimore Symphony Orchestra brings Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos to the Meyerhoff and Strathmore

Jonathan Carney, the BSO’s concertmaster, will direct the orchestra’s performance of all six Brandenburg Concertos. (James Bartolomeo)
Jonathan Carney, the BSO’s concertmaster, will direct the orchestra’s performance of all six Brandenburg Concertos. (James Bartolomeo)

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Jonathan Carney knows he’s going to look a little silly wielding a child-sized violin in the BSO’s performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

“Playing a small instrument when you’re a big person is a physical challenge,” says the 6-foot 2-inch Carney, who as concertmaster is the BSO’s lead violinist and occasional conductor. “But it’s a challenge I feel was worth taking because the sound of the instrument is so unique.”

Carney will be playing a piccolo violin for the first of the six concertos at the behest of none other than Johann Sebastian Bach. In the 1700s, regular violins had limited ranges, so the composer called for a small violin to handle the concerto’s high-flying solo.

For similar reasons, Bach wrote a solo for piccolo trumpet in the second concerto. So stifle your giggles when you see the BSO’s 6-foot principal trumpet player, Andrew Balio, dwarf the diminutive horn.

“Bach was a virtuoso on so many instruments, and he made everyone live up to that standard,” Carney says. “He pushed the instruments right to the edge of their technical capacities.”

Baroque orchestras couldn’t always meet Bach’s demands, which is probably part of the reason the concertos were ignored for more than a century after Bach presented them to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721. (A margrave was a nobleman, sort of like a count.) The music was beyond the capacities of the Margrave’s court orchestra, so he filed it away and didn’t even send Bach a thank-you note.

The world nearly lost some of the greatest instrumental music ever written, Carney says.

“The Brandenburg Concertos were ahead of their time,” he says. “They are incredibly sophisticated, technically and harmonically.”

The concertos were finally published in 1850, but they didn’t become well known until the 1950s, when recordings of the lively pieces became runaway hits. Today, they are among the best known and most frequently played baroque compositions — though not usually all together at the same concert.

“You get to hear the entire project as Bach envisioned it played in front of you, and it’s a rare occurrence,” Carney says. “It’s just not done very often.”

That’s because, in addition to their technical challenges, the concertos also present logistical ones. Each calls for a different set of instruments — the first, for instance, features two horns that aren’t used again, while the sixth requires the entire violin section to sit tight. Plus, they clock in at two hours and 20 minutes.

“Playing them is kind of like running a marathon,” Carney says. “Hearing all six of them feels really complete. It’s a very cathartic experience.”

Small but Mighty

Antonio-Gagliano-piccolo-v-copy
Paging ‘Antiques Roadshow’
BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney will be playing a piccolo violin (about three inches shorter than a full-sized violin) that his father bought at an auction in the 1950s. It, right, was made in 1757 by noted Italian luthier Nicolo Gagliano. Carney and his three siblings, who all went to the Juilliard School, played it as kids.

Little Big Horn
BSO principal trumpet player Andrew Balio will use a foot-long, gold-plated piccolo trumpet made by Schilke Music Products. Trumpet virtuoso Gerard Schwarz played this very instrument on his classic recordings of Baroque masterpieces in the 1970s and ’80s.

Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St., Baltimore; Thu. & Fri., 8 p.m., $29-$84; 410-783-8000.

Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; Sat., 8 p.m., $46-$109; 301-581-5100. (Grosvenor-Strathmore)

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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