BEMF tackles Baroque dance rhythms

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / June 18, 2011

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Here is how Kellom Tomlinson instructed gentlemen to perform the “Honour or Courtesy’’ at the beginning of a dance in his 1735 manual, “The Art of Dancing Explained’’: with the right foot’s “Heel being somewhat raised, the Ball or Instep pointed or pressing lightly on the Floor, the Knee streight, and the whole Weight of the Body, in a Gentleman-like Manner, resting on the left Foot, [he] bows . . . by bending the Body and scraping the open Foot, at the same Time, in one intire Motion forwards.’’

This is, not coincidentally, how Robert Mealy, director and concertmaster of this year’s Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, takes his bows. The group’s concert Thursday at Jordan Hall was devoted to Baroque-era orchestral showpieces; the playing reconnected the music to the rhythm of its era’s dancing.

So in the Sinfonia from J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 42, the players took the streaming notes of Bach’s dense melodies and neatly sorted them into accented steps and lightly brushed turns. Downbeats kept the Overture to Antonio Vivaldi’s opera “L’Olimpiade’’ on balance, the opening’s furious tremolos locked into a steady tread, the final section alternating between a graceful lilt and rustic foot-stomping.

Virtuosic passages gained intensity by being tailored to fit the rhythm. In both the Sinfonia from Bach’s Easter Oratorio and George Frideric Handel’s Op. 3, No. 2 Concerto Grosso, oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz spun out slow-movement arias that might have stretched and altered a 19th-century tempo, but here they floated over a gently inexorable grid. In Archangelo Corelli’s Op. 6, No. 4 Concerto Grosso, that pulse produced an almost production-number effect: Mealy and fellow violinist Cynthia Roberts’s flurried bowing over a crisp orchestral chorus line in the opening Allegro, or the principal players laying down a routine for the entire company to pick up in the Vivace.

Kristian Bezuidenhout was the soloist for a particularly airy, pastel-shaded performance of Bach’s BWV 1055 Harpsichord Concerto. In the Larghetto, Bezuidenhout’s rubato stretched out the time, as if an outsider was regarding the party. The orchestra refocused on the dance floor with confidence in Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3, the familiar “Air’’ more like a flowing pas de deux than a stately processional, as well as an encore, the “Réjouissance’’ from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4. The dances confirmed the concert’s choreographic conception of the Baroque: one epoch under a groove.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at

Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, the wrong piece was listed in an earlier version of this review of the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra. The piece was J.S. Bach’s BWV 1055 Harpsichord Concerto.


With Kristian Bezuidenhout, harpsichord

At: Jordan Hall, Thursday