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Smithsonian Chamber Music Society concert engages on multiple levels

Kenneth Slowik plays the harpsichord. (Baobao Zhang/Handout)

Listening to music can occur on many levels, from the purely aural to the emotional and intellectual. A concert performed by members of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society on Sunday night meant to engage you on all of them. The full effect includes a discussion of the music by the performers, as well as the concert, in the intimate West Wing of the Smithsonian Castle, the only concert venue in the city where one is surrounded by rockets, mounted wildlife and other curiosities.

Violinist Robert Mealy and SCMS Artistic Director Kenneth Slowik, at the harpsichord, played four of the six sonatas for violin and harpsichord by Bach (BWV 1014 and 1017 to 1019). In spontaneous and expert preconcert remarks, they spoke of the new genre that Bach was creating in these works, a distillation of Corelli’s trio sonata texture. Their performance fell in line with these comments, the fast movements percolating and largely regular of tempo so that the three strands of the polyphonic structure locked into place. The slow movements were more rhapsodic and of many different characters, including the gorgeous Andante movement from the B minor sonata that served as the encore.

Mealy’s limpid tone served those slow movements best, with perfectly tuned notes glowing on long lines, while Slowik was an adroit and sage presence at the keyboard, as in the solo central movement of the G sonata. The choice not to use a reinforcing instrument on the bass line, specified by Bach as optional, allowed the two instruments a clear balance, except in some cases where a larger registration on the harpsichord tipped the scales. If the joys of this concert leaned more to the didactic than the virtuosic, one left with both brain and ear having understood this music profoundly.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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