Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 and Penderecki’s Concerto No. 2 for Cello and Orchestra

The New York Philharmonic on Thursday, November 20.

After the small ensemble finished one of Bach’s oft-performed Brandenburg concertos, Sean turned and wryly murmured in my ear, “With a couple more rehearsals, they might have had it.” I stifled a giggle and gave him a mock-reproving frown, but I knew what he meant. The featured violas were dragging, and the tuning was off; the ensemble simply never felt like a cohesive whole. Ironically, the rarely performed Penderecki cello concert that followed was practically perfect: taut and energetic and immaculately synchronized.

One could blame the violists for the disappointing Brandenburg (Violists are the butt of many an orchestral joke. For example, how do you get two violists to play in unison? Answer: Shoot one of them.), but I suspect the main problem is that all the musicians “know” that concerto. They’ve played it countless times and most likely take it for granted that they can play it well again without too much effort. The Penderecki, on the other hand, is unfamiliar and obviously difficult and thus justifies extensive rehearsal time. It’s not an unusual scenario: Too often it’s the relatively easy, familiar pieces that trip you up.