Johann Sebastian Bops

San Antonio’s classical music community was treated to a number of novelties this weekend. The Classical Music Institute (CMI) Chamber Orchestra performed in the Ruth Taylor Recital Hall last Saturday, Oct. 7, with its 2017–2018 season opener, “Bach to Bach.”

This performance was itself the first in a new CMI series titled “To Music,” which will celebrate individual composers with a night featuring their work. The 14-piece ensemble played eight compositions representing a variety of Johann Sebastian Bach’s work.

David Heller, chair of Trinity’s music department, kicked off the night with a performance of the prelude and fugue of the second book of “The Well-Tempered Clavier in E major.” Harpsichord haters, step aside; his memorized solo performance hit all the right notes. It’s hard to hear the tinkling of a harpsichord and not imagine myself in a regal courtyard, but Heller’s performance justified the fantasy.

CMI violin soloist Mari Lee joined Heller for a performance of the first two movements of “Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Harpsichord in E major”. Beginning with its moody adagio, the pair worked together to pull out the composition’s sorrowful tones until it was time for the second movement, the allegro. An allegro to be sure; its melody was bouncing and joyful.

The whole chamber orchestra emerged to perform an excerpt from the “St. Matthew Passion,” an operatic concert piece with a sacred theme: the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Mezzo-soprano Jacquelyn Matava delivered the No. 47 aria, “Erbarme dich” or “Have mercy,” originally meant for an alto.

But if her voice was lower than Bach intended, it made no difference. She and associate concertmaster Simón Gollo led the violins through a solemn rendition of the piece, while the harpsichord, bass and cellos plucked away in a dramatic clef backing.

Then it was time for “Violin Concerto in E major”: fast, slow and rather fast — allegro, adagio and allegro assai. This concerto starts off on its allegro’s signature phrase, which was a real treat. Where the allegros are exciting, the adagio is reflective and suspenseful. I’d recommend listening online, but listening to the group resonate as they traveled up the scale together during the final allegro was an affecting experienced that YouTube recordings can’t replicate.

The intermission followed the concerto, which is an opportunity for me to slip in a mild criticism. Putting aside the fine performances, the CMI Chamber Orchestra might have improved the transitions between each work. On occasion, there was an ungainly amount of time between the performers’ retreat after playing and the return of more players for the next piece.

After the intermission, we were back to the regularly scheduled programming. Principal cellist Mihai Marica introduced his solo, “Cello Suite No. 1 in G major.” The prelude is a pleasant series of arpeggios interspersed with healthy improvisation. Then came the third and fifth movements, a French court dance and lively British dance, respectively. Cellos aren’t often scored for the melodic forefront, but Marica’s treatment was beautiful.

Heller accompanied flautist François Minaux for the second and third movements of Bach’s “Sonata for Flute in B minor”. I can’t say that the second movement, largo e dolce, did much for me; I couldn’t help but think that a piano would be a sweeter companion for Minaux’s slow, soaring flute. The third movement, presto, was quick and full of snippy turns of phrase.

The penultimate performance was Mass in B minor No. 6: “Laudamus te,” or “We praise you.” Lee soloed as Matava sang, the violins and violas trading melodies back-and-forth with the cellos and bass all the way. Praise!

The concert concluded with the “Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major.”. Its opening allegro movement began with an appropriately joyful, celebratory tone. Minaux and Gollo drove the melody, trading phrases with compliments from the continuo group; at no point, it seemed, were there fewer than two rhythms in the air at once.

This continued until, before I knew it, an extended harpsichord solo erupted, built in technical complexity, and when it seemed to reach its breaking point, the whole ensemble came together for a fantastical ending to the allegro. A concertino formed by Heller, Gollo and Minaux played the calm affettuoso, providing a period of much-needed mildness, a serenity after that allegro’s storm. Soon enough, the concerto was back on track, ending the celebration of Bach’s corpus with a big finish.

It was an unorthodox but excellent way to spend my Saturday night. The CMI Chamber Orchestra’s next performance, “A Modern Trifecta,” is a ways off: Feb. 10, 2018, at 7:30 p.m. in the Tobin Center. Be sure to mark your calendars.