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Intricate melodies sing in the hands of Pacific Symphony principal musicians led by pianist Orli Shaham for Café Ludwig’s chamber concert, “The Brilliance of Bach”

February 03, 2014

Beginning with a single flute line and concluding with lush harmonies created by multiple voices, Pacific Symphony’s upcoming Café Ludwig chamber music concert, “The Brilliance of Bach,” traverses the complex musical landscape created by counterpoint genius, Johannes Sebastian Bach. Achieving legendary fame as a musician while he was alive, Bach not only refined the Baroque techniques that preceded him, but also expanded the limits of instruments, including writing for the modern flute and creating a new role for the harpsichord. Illustrating Bach’s inventiveness, pianist and host Orli Shaham is joined by Symphony principal musicians including: Benjamin Smolen on flute, Raymond Kobler on violin, Paul Manaster on violin, Robert Becker on viola, Timothy Landauer on cello and Steven Edelman on bass. This concert takes place on Sunday, Feb. 23, at 3 p.m., in the charming Samueli Theater, where coffee, tea and desserts are served. Tickets are $60 and $75. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 755-5799 or visit www.PacificSymphony.org.

“This program is one of the musical highlights of my year,” says Shaham, “and I am eager to listen to it as much as to perform in it!”

She continues by saying, “The music of Bach is foundational in every aspect of music. His works train young performers from the beginnings of their studies, both in technique and in musicianship, and his oeuvre has served as inspiration for most composers that followed. Doing a program of all Bach is a dream come true for any musician—the trick is only narrowing that program down to an appropriate length!”

The Sunday afternoon performance opens with Partita for Flute in A Minor, an energetic and courtly piece. Then, selections from Duets No. 1-4 for Violin and Cello offer a somewhat mournful, yet abstractly beautiful sound. The delightful Partita No. 1 for Piano prepares the audience for Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, one of the highlights of Western music. In the Brandenburg No. 5, the concertino highlights the standard combination of Bach’s day: harpsichord, violin and flute.

Shaham explains the complexity of Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 by saying, “Here we have three solo instruments (and even more solo voices if you count the keyboard’s) and a small ensemble to boot. Joining Ben Smolen and me as soloists will be Raymond Kobler, who is not only a wonderful musician but also has experience playing this music with some incredible groups. The concerto is devilishly difficult for the solo instruments, especially the harpsichord, whose cadenza is notorious for being one of the most technically demanding moments in the whole repertoire.

“The piece is chamber music at its best, with the voices in each of the instruments constantly ‘listening’ to the voices in the others, and responding and reacting to them with musical tones.”

The concert begins with Partita for Flute in A Minor, a piece displaying compositional flexibility, a marked allemande and a concluding bourée that gives the suite a sense of structure and wholeness rather than just a collection of dance movements. Discussing Bach’s awe-inspiring ability to weave together musical lines, Shaham says, “In the solo flute partita, we presumably have a single line, especially as the flute cannot play two tones together. Yet somehow, through brilliant counterpoint, Bach creates an aural world, which is easily four voices deep. I am excited to hear Benjamin Smolen, who is such an intellectually and technically superb player, perform this work.”

The first duet for violin and cello is a lively piece with predominating quick 32nd notes. The second duet connotes a luxuriously relaxed pace; the third, a sprightly gigue, and fourth, reminiscent of a religious chorale, would not be out of place in the soundtrack for a film set in the Renaissance. “The duets for violin and cello also achieve an exponential number of voices,”Shaham continues. “The music sings in every direction.”

The Partita No. 1 for Piano in B-flat Major is in six movements with an introduction, and as is usually the case in such suites, Bach juxtaposes movements of contrasting dynamics and tempos for entertainment, while elaborate ornaments suggest the form’s Italian origins.

The Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 concludes the afternoon’s sojourn into Bach’s musical masterpieces. The first movement shines with a spectacular cadenza performed on the harpsichord by Shaham—a long, showy solo passage that has a spontaneous, improvised quality. The gorgeously fast runs of notes become even more impressive when remembering that Shaham has fewer resources to work with than a pianist in coloring and phrasing: virtually no loud-soft variation in the note and a rapid decay time.

Shaham has established an impressive international reputation as one of today’s most gifted pianists. The Guardian hailed her playing as “perfection” during her recent Proms debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Applauded by critics, Shaham has performed with illustrious orchestras and is a frequent guest at summer festivals. The gifted musician has given recitals at renowned concert halls, including Carnegie Hall and The Kennedy Center, and has worked with many eminent conductors. Shaham received her first scholarship at the age of 5 from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. At 7, she traveled to New York to study with Nancy Stessin, and at 8, she became a scholarship student of Herbert Stessin at The Juilliard School. Shaham was also the recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant and the Gilmore Young Artist Award, two highly coveted prizes awarded to enhance her musical abilities.