The first piece, Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C Minor by Bach (BWV 1060R) left much to be desired. While recognizing that this concert did not purport to use period instruments or historically informed performance techniques, still there are things that can be imitated on modern instruments: the dry saltando of a gut string, or the quavering softness of an un-keyed hole, for instance, and certainly conscientious phrasing and attention to small details can go along way in giving a baroque 'feel' to a performance on modern instruments (as was later achieved in the second Bach concerto of the evening.) All of these performers are aware of that, yet it was not apparent from this performance. While possessed of a full and even rich timbre, the outing was plagued by mushy phrasing and lack of a strong pulse.
The world premiere of Schiff's Chamber Concerto No. 1 for Clarinet and Ensemble was a different matter entirely. The opening movement, Playing with Friends (Jeux d'Enfants) must have been a somber game to start, but with Schiff directing, David Shifrin navigated these still waters with a delicious huskiness on his clarinet, and was joined by bassoonist Julie Feves for some hypnotic chordal work. It exploded into a cacophonous exultation, followed by a dizzying solo turn for the clarinet. A saucy pizzicato from the strings and spare punctuations from the percussion sounded more like childish jubilation; one felt a bit of Bernstein at times. As the strings and horns burst into wild discord and the percussionist dished out ridiculously tasty syncopations, it was as fun as eating too much candy when you're six years old...and then subito al niente.
The second movement, Arietta, seemed to border on the humdrum at times until it all began to make sense in the larger context of the movement. By the end everything came together and it was truly poignant. The last movement, Rondo al'ebraica, was true to its title. Wild and wonky, non-traditional but unmistakably klezmer, Shifrin was constantly simmering on the clarinet, always threatening to explode into a full rolling boil but somehow never reaching that crest. The percussion was fascinating, as long, expansive hits on the ride cymbal lay a groundwork for the wild partying above.
The Brahms was a scaled down version of the Adagio from Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major. Arranger Daniel Schlosberg did duties as the soloist. Sophie Shao's broad, comely cello solo complemented the rich and convincing arrangement. Yearning and poignant, the piano and cello loomed out of the dense texture like a purring of enamored titans. Schlosberg's huge solo work made the whole thing feel like a cloud on which one could dream and never want to wake.
The final concerto of the evening was Bach's Brandenburg No. 4, (BWV 1049) and it suffered from none of the lethargy of the evening's opener. There was crispness of articulation from the flutes and a judicious, minimalist rubato from violist Yura Lee. The interplay between the ripieno and concertante was absolutely seamless and exciting. The Andante was heavy-handed yet not unlovely, and in the finale the solo work from the concertante was magnificent. Lee's job as band-leader held everything together; her unflagging pace and vibrant playing set the tone that everyone followed.