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Gerald Carpenter: Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra to Take Us Deep Into Brandenburg

The Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra has dubbed 2014-15 its “Season of Celebration,” and it calls its next concert — at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Lobero Theatre — its “Brandenburg Marathon Holiday Season Celebration.”

Heiichiro Ohyama
Maestro Heiichiro Ohyama

As you have probably guessed, the title refers not to a sponsored charity run through the eponymous Prussian Duchy, but to a performance, under the baton of the SBCO’s dynamic music director, Heiichiro Ohyama, of all six of Johann Sebastian Bach’s celebrated Brandenburg Concertos, BWV-1046-1051. This is a celebration, indeed.

Unlike many such baroque sets, the Brandenburgs make for quite an audience-friendly evening, since the variety of their textures is all but infinite. In the years after Felix Mendelssohn reintroduced Bach’s music to European audiences, in 1829 (“To think,” Mendelssohn said, “that it took an actor and a Jew’s son to revive the greatest Christian music for the world!”), Bach’s stature as a composer has grown exponentially. Today, he occupies a quasi-divine niche in the musical Pantheon and is, among musicians, the most admired of all masters.

It is all the more baffling, then, that this demigod, who is the most studied and researched of all composers, should still present such a mysterious, enigmatic face to us. Aside from the rather flowery and insincere dedications he writes to his noble patrons, he doesn’t explain himself to us at all.

For the general music lover, the Brandenburgs come close to defining Bach’s music for us. They are easily his best known works in the sense of being actually listened to. Most of us have heard of the Saint Matthew Passion or the Mass in B-Minor, but how many of us can quote a single melody from either? I know that I can’t, and I have damned good memory for tunes. Who has a “favorite” of the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin or the Suites for Unaccompanied Cello? (Oh, sure, you’re thinking of the one Bergman used in Through a Glass, Darkly, but which one was that, exactly?)

The six Brandenburg Concertos, in contrast, are full of pretty, engaging and memorable melodies. I could whistle half a dozen on command. Their appeal is not deep, but it is very, very wide.

Yet, for all their fame and accessibility, no one has been able to nail down for sure when and where they were all written, let alone why. Most of what one reads about them (not counting musical analysis, about which, who cares?), is full of phrases like, “Bach probably ...” or “Bach must have intended ...” or “It seems that Bach ...” or “Bach was surely thinking of ... .” That is because Bach left no record of their compositional history, and since he doesn’t tell us, it is, literally, anybody’s guess. (“My guess might be good and it might crummy,” said Sam Spade, “but Mrs. Spade didn’t raise any children dippy enough to make guesses in front of a DA, an Assistant DA, and a stenographer.”)

But you really don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and you don’t need to know anything about the Brandenburgs to derive great pleasure and satisfaction from hearing them played in the concert hall — especially by such great artists as Maestro Ohyama and his band — you don’t even have to have heard them before.

Tickets to this concert are $64 and $54 — probably less, if you go in person to the Lobero box office at 33 E. Canon Perdido St. They can also be obtained by telephone at 805.963.0761 or 888.456.2376, or online by clicking here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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