Conductor-harpsichordist Anthony Newman and his eight-member, original-instrument Brandenburg Collegium made their first Southern California appearance a generous and diversified one Thursday night. But their quiet virtuosity shifted so rarely out of top gear that the Baroque Muzak they produced could not be energized even by the sweet warblings of soprano Julianne Baird.
Perhaps it was the plush confines of Ambassador Auditorium that swallowed the ensemble's sound, or a recalcitrant harpsichord (its registration-switching mechanism had broken during rehearsal) that unnerved Newman and his group. Whatever the reason, they rushed through concertos by Bach and Blavet, Pachelbel's ubiquitous Kanon und Gigue, and extended sets of Handel and Purcell with Baird as if there were a plane waiting for them on a Tarmac somewhere.
Not that Newman's stylized approach to Baroque repertory was inappropriate or casual. He apparently could not leave an unadorned melodic line bare of additional curlicues or flourishes. And not unauthentically so, but the profusion and speed with which he decorated them became so obsessive that they superseded the music's expressive heart.
Newman's troops, inspired by fleet-fingered concertmistress Lisa Rautenberg, were certainly equal to the task. Whether in Blavet's gentle A minor concerto or Bach's more demanding Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, flutist Sandra Miller commanded a lovely, fluent tone and impeccable technique. In Bach's fourth Brandenburg Concerto, recorder players Andrea MacIntosh-Lee and Lisette Rabinow cooed enchantingly. And the silvery-toned Baird, avoiding consonants if they even dared disrupt a phrase, turned arias by Handel and songs by Purcell into fond musical embraces.
But increasingly throughout the evening, whether conducting or playing solo (in Brandenburg Five and Bach's Harpsichord Concerto No. 1), Newman's spirit of relentless industry was so badly complemented by poor projection and just plain haste that the Collegium's considerable expertise and often breathtaking skill became largely irrelevant.