Dec. 7 2016 09:48 AM

Lincoln Center dispatches small army on epic Brandenburg binge

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center comes to the Wharton Center Thursday for a rare performance of Bach’s complete Brandenburg Concertos.
Photo by Tristan Cook

A six-course banquet that lightens your heart, instead of giving you acid reflux, sounds like a miracle. The Brandenburg Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach start at miraculous and go upward from there.

“The music of Bach seems untouchable, divine, seemingly impossible for mortals to write,” marveled violinist Arnaud Sussmann.

Taking a longstanding New York holiday tradition on the road, Sussmann and 20 colleagues from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will play all six of the concertos at the Wharton Center Thursday night.

If this sounds like too much of a good thing, think again. This ambrosia fills your soul, not your gut. Besides, no two concertos are scored the same way.

The first is a pink, frosty sunrise, with noble brass fanfares lighting up every hill and valley.

Just for fun, music’s all-time master craftsman takes the celestial spheres apart, popping open each layer to reveal the various pulsations underneath.

The second concerto is a twirly frolic in which every bar hits like the first sip of morning coffee. The third chugs like a locomotive stoked by angels on tracks of pure geometry.

The fourth moves the party into fluffy clouds, drizzled with woodwinds, with a cherub on top. In the fifth, a philosophical conversation builds to an epic keyboard solo that makes you want to hold your lighter up.

To finish you off in the bottom of the sixth, the strings bear down with a vigorous, warm massage.

Sussmann summed it up as “fitting, festive music for the end of the year.”

He’s played the complete cycle with the Chamber Music Society in New York several times, but this is his first Brandenburg tour.

The tour crams nine dates into two weeks. That’s a lot of time to spend in one man’s brain — nine times six equals 45 concertos — but Sussmann is raring to go. Even colleagues who have been playing these masterpieces over 30 years feel the same way, he reported.

“Bach, more so than every other great composer — I don’t think it’s possible to get tired of it,” Sussmann said. “There’s something with Bach’s music that feels so fresh and vital. There’s an energy in the music, and it gives you energy.”

This year’s Brandenburg barnstorm is unusually large. Most Chamber Music Society tours involve a half-dozen musicians at most.

“We might just have to make bigger restaurant reservations,” Sussmann said.

To the violinist, these concertos are demanding to play, not because the music is so virtuosic, but because it’s “very transparent,” with no room for anyone to hide.

“You want to be on your A-game, matching articulation, phrasing and that kind of stuff,” he said.

Sussmann, who was born in Strasbourg, France, moved to New York to study at Juilliard and happily inhabits a Manhattan apartment. He studied with violin great Itzhak Perlman, who tapped him to be his teaching assistant for a year.

“I listened to all his recordings when I was growing up,” Sussmann said. “Little did I imagine that one day I would be playing with him and for him and even teaching with him a little bit.”

The best way to understand what it’s like to study and work with Perlman, Sussmann said, is to just listen to him play.

“That tone of his — that’s who he is,” Sussmann said. “He always believed in positive criticism, no matter what advice he gave you.”

The astringent, glassy, detached style of playing favored by some contemporary violinists is not Sussmann’s bag. The older he gets, the more he gravitates to the warm, human sound of Perlman or violin legend Jascha Heifetz.

“I went through a little hate phase with Heifetz, but I wasn’t getting the genius of this guy,” Sussmann said. “I listen to it now and realize he was on a totally different level.”

With his career buoyed by a 2009 Avery Fisher career grant, Sussmann is keeping busy these days. In the coming months, he’ll go on tour with another former teacher, Pamela Frank, whom he calls a “huge musical influence.”

“There are a lot of works I play and think of a few things I could hear her say very loudly and clearly in my head,” Sussmann said. “It’s not just Mr. Perlman.”

After that, he will go on three more tours with the Chamber Music Society, including an Asian tour, and several concerto gigs, including Brahms with the Alabama Symphony and Tchaikovsky in Georgia.

Despite all the work, this month’s Brandenburg binge is the closest Sussmann has ever gotten to a full-on orchestral tour.

“It will be intense,” he said. “Some days we’ll be traveling and performing the same day, but I’m sure it will be just as much fun.”

Brandenburg Concertos Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8
Tickets start at $22/$18 students
Wharton Center
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000,