Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 3, 2020

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Entering Bach’s World

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA

December 2, 2020

by Michael J. Moran


The last installment of the SSO’s three-program fall series of “90-minute virtual lecture/music events” via Zoom featured guitarist and music educator Andrew Leonard, who presented an overview of Johan Sebastian Bach’s six “Brandenburg Concertos” and “contextualized” them with background information about Bach’s life, musical influences, and the “high Baroque” era in which he worked.  


These concertos were likely written between 1717, when Bach started a “dream job” as music director at the court of Prince Leopold of Cothen, and 1721, when the composer sent them to the Margrave (prince) of Brandenburg in the apparent hope of a new job offer (due to Leopold’s waning musical interest) which never materialized. Leonard’s lively manner and obvious enthusiasm for his subject made his clear explanations of the elegant French and earthier Italian styles of Baroque music and related topics accessible to even his least musically literate viewers.


Illustrating his comments with a variety of video clips played by a wide range of performers, Leonard offered fascinating insights about these now familiar masterworks, considered very difficult, even too “complicated” to play, during Bach’s lifetime, when he was better known as an organist than as a composer. Each concerto, for example, was written for a different, often novel, combination of instruments: Leonard highlighted the first concerto’s hunting horns, the piercing clarino trumpet in the second concerto, and the dominant harpsichord in the fifth.


His delight in the miniscule two-chord middle movement of the third, in the virtuoso interplay between dueling violins and recorders in the fourth, and in the prominence of violas and violas da gamba in the sixth was palpable and contagious. Quoting UMass professor Ernest May, with whom he’s currently studying Bach, Leonard’s description of Bach’s “anything you can do I can do better” approach to composition reminded viewers how far ahead of his time he was.


As a generous incentive to learn more about Bach, Leonard sent every attendee a resource guide with links to all the performances he excerpted. SSO Education Director Kirsten Lipkens, a Yale Music School classmate of Leonard’s, ably oversaw a revealing Q&A session and suggested, in welcome news, that more virtual SSO programs may appear soon.