In the good old days, which weren't so long ago, symphony orchestras played Baroque music routinely. Then an age of specialization set in, and that repertory was delegated to chamber orchestras or even smaller ensembles that presumably could play it with closer fidelity to the style of the period in which it was written.
Last season, the Pacific Symphony began bucking that trend, returning to the days of yesteryear. It thereby proved the wisdom and the folly of the traditional approach.
Wisdom because these works are the foundation of Western art music and deserve the widest possible audiences. Smart too because they build orchestras by developing style and ensemble.
Folly because performances by too large a group can be unwieldy, blur stylistic differences and point out problems of ensemble even as it is getting better.
Both aspects were evident Wednesday when violinist Jaime Laredo conducted a four-part program of Vivaldi, Bach and Handel at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
All the pieces worked on the concerto grosso principal--the contrast between small and large groups of instruments. Apart from Laredo, the soloists were orchestra members: concertmaster Kevin Connolly, principal cellist Timothy Landauer and flutists Louise DiTullio (principal of the section) and Sharon O'Connor.
The orchestra consisted of 28 players, plus harpsichordist Lori Loftus. When Connolly and Landauer weren't serving as soloists, they returned to their sections.
Connolly is comparatively new to the orchestra, having been appointed to his post at the beginning of the current season. Laredo has led and played with the orchestra before. Both have slightly different styles of playing. Landauer has another.
All three were soloists in Vivaldi's Concerto Grosso in D minor, Opus 3, No. 11, one of several Vivaldi works that Bach transcribed as an organ concerto, acknowledging his debt to the Venetian master.
The two violinists tended to be cool and harsh in tone, with Laredo bright and prominent and Connolly rather pallid. Their sound was mirrored in the larger ensemble. Landauer, however, managed to combine Baroque energy with sensitivity of touch, evoking a personal and emotional quality in the music.
A similar disparity surfaced in Bach's "Brandenburg" Concerto No. 4, where Laredo's sped-up tempos as soloist and leader grated against those of his clear and lyric flute collaborators. The result was the messiest ensemble work of the evening.
Despite the connection between the two composers, their music should not sound the same in texture. But that was the case Wednesday, as it was with Handel. The orchestra played with the same mass and intensity of sound for all three. That sameness grew tiresome, even with the interplay between solo and larger groups.
Still, the unity and precision of the strings--the foundation of an orchestra--continue to develop.
Laredo opened the program with Handel's Concerto Grosso in G, Opus 6, No. 1, with the musicians sounding increasingly confident in attack. Loftus, who provided support throughout, was sure-fingered in the extensive cadenza in Bach's Fifth "Brandenburg" Concerto.