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Toronto Bach Festival: Riveting soloists dominate the opening concert of Bach’s orchestral music

Music Director and Oboist John Abberger; Photo credit: Saajid Motala

​​Review by David Richards

Toronto ON May 12th 2018

A festival to celebrate the music of J.S. Bach is by no means a unique phenomenon. Many cities devote several weeks annually to music of perhaps the greatest musical genius of the western world. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until oboist John Abberger set out to create a festival that Toronto could join the ranks. Now in its third year, it can boast a devoted following. Last night, at St. Barnabas-on-the-Danforth Church, the Toronto Bach Festival opened with four orchestral works designed to lift the spirits.

​Abberger, in a blog of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, says he has been fascinated with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach since he was a small child and remembers being captivated by one of his compositions as a youth. Since that time, he says, it has been a touchstone of his career. He says, “It is almost as if I set out on a journey (without realizing it as such) to try to understand Bach’s music deeply, and to communicate this understanding to an audience by performing these compositions to the best of my ability.”

The concert began with Abberger along with a small orchestra of period instruments performing Concerto in A major, after BWV 1055. It felt as if I was in a coffee house on a Friday night in the 1720s in Leipzig when Bach’s Collegium Musicum would perform harpsichord concertos with Bach or one of his sons at the keyboard. These concertos were often derived from earlier compositions. In this case, the earlier composition was a concerto, in all likelihood for oboe d’amore. The dance-like music that opened with the strings (a string quartet plus bass and harpsichord) was a showcase of brilliant and uplifting solo work by Abberger

The spirit of joyous music-making continued with two Brandeburg Concertos: No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049 and No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047. In the first of these two, soloists Alison Melville (recorder), Colin Savage (recorder) and Julia Wedman (violin) gave virtuosic performances, as did Scott Weavers (horn) along with Wedman, Melville and Abberger in the second. These dazzling masterpieces demanded enormous skill from these early-music artists. Playing on a natural horn, Weavers performed with amazing dexterity. Each of their performances riveted the listeners. It must have been quite a shock for  Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, when Bach presented the six Brandenburg Concertos to him in 1721. It is doubtful that the Margrave had in his orchestra anyone capable of performing them. Indeed, there is no record of performances in his court. Soloists in last night’s performances had no trouble navigating the challenges of these scores. 

The final work on the program was Orchestral Suite no. 4 in D major, BWV 1069. Abberger chose what is thought to be an early version without trumpets and timpani added when the Ouverture was adapted to a Christmas Cantata.  It paired a quartet of oboes and bassoon with the strings and continuo, with each section playing off one another as in a concerto grosso, making for a playful repartee. Oboists Abberger, Ruth Denton and Gillian Howard along with bassoonist Allen Hamrick created a dynamic quartet. Hamrick was especially impressive on his baroque bassoon.

Toronto is fortunate to be home to brilliant period music performers such as those participating in the Toronto Music Festival. The Festival continues today and tomorrow concluding with Cantatas & a Passion, a performance of music by Schütz and Bach. Nine singers including Ellen McAteer (soprano), Simon Honeyman (countertenor), Nils Brown (tenor) and Joel Allison (bass-baritone) and seven instrumentalists promise to create a superbly intimate chamber-like performance of some wonderful music. The concert takes place at St. Barnabas-on-the-Danforth at 3pm. The performance will be directed by John Abberger. Details can be found at ​