It was odd, after watching Savall play so spontaneously, to see the members of the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra in front of their music stands. And it was disheartening to read, in concertmaster Robert Mealy's program note, that "something on the order of 300 sinfonias, concertos, and other concerted works were lost from Bach's Cöthen period," and that "among his sacred cantatas, some 100 are lost from his Weimar period, and probably another hundred or so from Leipzig." Those words seemed to underline the necessity for music to live through its musicians, not simply on written pages that might be discarded or lost.
And yet these musicians — all standing except for the cellists and Mealy at the harpsichord — seemed to embody Savall's implied idea of playing the music and not the score. Indeed, they hardly looked at their scores. Double-bassist Robert Nairn kept trying to tango with his instrument, as if the dance pulse of the music were irresistible. At one point, the four first violins bobbed and weaved as one, as if they were a synchronized string team. Then first violin Peter Spissky on first violin and Cynthia Roberts on second engaged in a mating-dance duet.
The program was titled "The Orchestra at Play: Festive Concertos, Suites, and Sinfonias by Bach, Handel, Corelli, and Vivaldi," and the orchestra was in a playful mood, the strings augmented when appropriate by oboe, bassoon, trumpet, and timpani. The sinuous oboes of Gonzalo X. Ruiz and Kathryn Montoya were the highlight of the two Bach sinfonias, one from the Easter Oratorio, the other from Cantata No. 42, Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbaths. Handel's Concerto Grosso Opus 3 No. 2 had the duets between Spissky and Roberts, an exuberant allegro, and a springy minuet. You could hear a rocking gondola lullaby in the adagio from Corelli's Concerto Grosso Opus 6 No. 4; you could see changing Venetian skies in the Overture to L'Olimpiade, even though Vivaldi's drama is set in Greece.
Balances were at times perplexing. Ben Harms's timpani was thunderous throughout. In the Easter Oratorio sinfonia, the lusty strings deprived the two oboes, the bassoon, and the three trumpets of any color. And, granted that a continuo needn't be prominent, Mealy's harpsichord was mostly inaudible, even from Row B. Guest soloist Kristian Bezuidenhout didn't fare much better in Bach's Keyboard Concerto in A. Even with the harpsichord's beautifully painted lid brought out and placed to direct the sound toward the audience, Bezuidenhout's tone didn't register against the strings tightly bunched around him, and some of the felicities of his phrasing got lost.
I was also not a fan of the aggressive double-dotting in the overture of the final selection, Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3: it reduced the music's flow to an undanceable da-DUH da-DUH da-DUH. The main tempo, too, though not as Usain Bolt-like as the one William Malloch used to advocate, precluded any processional feel. Offsetting that was the back-and-forth between Spissky and Roberts in ornamenting the "g-string" air (which so often goes unornamented), the clarion call of the trumpets, and the energy and enthusiasm of the orchestra (which here included bassoonist Mathieu Lussier, though there was no bassoon in the instrument list for the piece) as it exploded into the concluding gigue.
One encore, the "Réjouissance" final movement from Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 4. "Réjouissance" is French for "rejoicing." The audience certainly was.