The Melbourne Musicians: A Family Affair

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Published: 4th May, 2018
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The Bach family is unquestionably the most gifted musical family in history. Historians have counted at least 50 musicians and several known composers in the family group, going back 3 generations before Johann Sebastian and 2 generations after him.

Johann Sebastian was undoubtedly the most impressive, hailed today as one of the greatest composers of all time. No other extended family of composers is still having their music regularly performed over 300 years later, and it’s doubtful it will ever happen again.

Johann Sebastian had 20 children from 2 marriages, and 4 sons became composers, as well as a grandson, Wilhelm Friedrich, the last known Bach composer, who wryly observed “Heredity can tend to run out of ideas.” The genetic line can also run out and that’s what happened sometime in the mid Nineteenth Century, so no more Bachs.

Under the title “A Family Affair” The Melbourne Musicians presented the music of JS Bach and his four sons at St. John’s Southgate, an appropriate venue, given its Lutheran denomination.

It was an informative afternoon as it allowed comparisons between all five composers, with the individual characteristics of each composer evident in the chosen works.

The five Bach composers were, from the first marriage,  Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-1784), the favorite son who also became a famous organist and Carl Philipp Emanuel (1724-1788), the most famous of the sons; then, from the second marriage, Johan Christoph Friedrich (1732-1795), the second youngest son, who studied law before turning to music, and Johann Christian  (1735-1782) the youngest son, a composer and entrepreneur who befriended a young Mozart. And finally Johann Sebastian himself, whose “Coffee Cantata”, performed here, demonstrated his sense of humour.

It was an eclectic collection, beginning with Wilhelm’s Sinfonia in F major FV 67, “dissonant”;  a quirky work, neither here nor there, as if the composer couldn’t quite make up his mind what he was trying to do.

This was followed by Carl Philip Emanuel’s Flute Concerto in A Major Wq.172, with soloist, Bridget Bolliger.  Ms Bolliger is an extraordinary talent (she made her solo debut with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the age of 15) whose mastery of this work shone through. She played with confidence and authority, inspiring the orchestral ensemble around her. She is a founding director of the New Sydney Wind Quartet and Founding Artistic Director of the Sydney Chamber Festival. Melbourne deserves to hear more from her.

Soprano Sarah Lobegeiger de Rodriguez, a regular with the Melbourne Musicians, gave a charming performance of the whimsical “Coffee Cantata” by Johan Sebastian. The work makes fun of the weakness of his fellow citizens for coffee. The highlight is a beautiful aria about the joys of drinking coffee, performed here with wit and style. Maybe Melbourne’s coffee culture needs a similar work.

Johan Christoph Friedrich’s Sinfonia No.3 in D Minor shows the influence of Italian music in the mid 1700s. At the time of this work’s composition he was in charge of music at the court of Buckeburg. He composed 10 symphonies, as well as cantatas, oratorios, motets, songs, operas and orchestral and chamber music. This was a well-performed work showing good ensemble discipline, although, as with some of the other works, there were moments of hesitance and indecision.

The afternoon ended with Johann Christian Bach’s Sonfonieta No.3 in D major, which clearly showed the delineation between father and son. Johann Christian was a successful entrepreneur in London. Mozart, when aged 8, met Johann Christian in London and became an admirer of his music. Mozart arranged three sonatas from the latter’s Op. 5 into keyboard concertos. In later life Mozart “often acknowledged the artistic debt he owed” to Johann Christian.  The Sonfonietta No.2 shows strong melodic characteristics which must have appealed to Mozart. Bach’s influence on him is evident in this work.

This performance began the 44thConcert Season of the Melbourne Musicians, all of them, to my knowledge, directed by the inimitable Artistic Director Frank Pam. He has made a substantial contribution to Melbourne’s musical world, especially its youth. The orchestra’s challenge will be to manage the transition when he eventually steps down.

Reviewer Cyril Jones heard The Melbourne Musicians’ performance of the Music of JS Bach & Sons at St. John’s Southgate, on April 29, 2018.