A top-flight ensemble of Baroque music specialists demonstrates their ample strengths.
It’s tempting to think of June as Bach season in Maine, thanks largely to a pair of festivals: the Bach Virtuosi Festival, which got underway Sunday evening at the Cathedral of St. Luke’s, and runs through Sunday, and the Portland Bach Experience, which runs from June 14 to 23. Add to that an all-Bach program offered by the DaPonte String Quartet and guest soloists at Bowdoin College on Wednesday.
But in truth, Bach gets plenty of attention here, year-round. As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, the Portland String Quartet played a free performance of “The Art of the Fugue” in December, and in March, Municipal Organist James Kennerley celebrated the composer’s birthday with an all-Bach concert, something he plans to do again next season. Bach also figures into two of the four programs announced for the Portland Early Music Festival in October.
WHAT: Bach Virtuosi Festival – “Celebrating Bach: The Return of the World-Renowned Virtuosi.”
WHERE: St. Luke’s Cathedral, Portland
REVIEWED: Sunday, June 2. Runs through June 9, with concerts and master classes at St. Luke’s Cathedral and Etz Chaim Synagogue.
That’s a pretty solid presence for a composer born 334 years ago, and half a world away, particularly at a time when the classical music world is working hard to update and diversify the repertory. And it seems to prove what most musicians and a great many listeners know: Whether for its virtuosic compositional techniques, its spiritual depths, or the way its demands on players and singers yield dazzling results when the musicians are equal to them, there are qualities in this music that defy the influence of time, place and changing fashion.
Lewis Kaplan, the founder and artistic director of the Bach Virtuosi Festival (and the Portland Bach Festival, from which it emerged), has gathered a top-flight ensemble of Baroque music specialists, several of whom have been with the festival from the start. He also assembled an opening program that introduces these musicians and their ample strengths efficiently, while also offering a glimpse of Bach’s compositional breadth, both secular and sacred.
The concert began with an interesting choice. Instead of the the burst of bright-hued energy you might expect as the curtain-raiser at a festival’s opening concert, Kaplan and his players opted for depth over sparkle, by way of the solemn Sinfonia from the “Easter Oratorio” (BWV 249) – an instrumental description of the disciples’ procession to the tomb, where they are about to discover that Jesus has been resurrected.
It is a simple but emotionally weighty movement, with slow-moving string chords supporting an exquisitely plangent oboe line. John Ferrillo, the principal oboist of the Boston Symphony, gave a bittersweet, nuanced account of that arching solo meditation, and the ensemble’s string section supplied a suitably subdued characterization of the downhearted march.
The rest of the program illuminated Bach’s more ebullient side. The motet “Singet dem Herrn” (BWV 225) introduced the festival’s superb vocal ensemble of eight singers. Presenting this work’s writing for double choir with only one voice singing each part may seem unduly spare to listeners who grew up in the days when Bach was the province of large choirs, but it reflects musicological discoveries about the forces available to Bach at the Thomaskirche, in Leipzig, Germany.
More to the point, the single-voice approach exposes the music’s inner workings in ways that are obscured in large choir readings. The ensemble was conducted by Sherezade Panthaki (who also sang the soprano lines in Choir I). That said, all eight singers also participated in the performance of Cantata No. 29, “Wir danken dir, Gott” (BWV 29), which closed the program. Two voices to a part is hardly excessive, and was within the possibilities in Bach’s Leipzig, and it made sense, given that the cantata, unlike the a cappella motet, is accompanied by a robust ensemble, and demands both solo and ensemble singing.
At any rate, the choir brought to it the same illuminating clarity they brought to the motet, and bass Jonathan Woody, tenor Brian Giebler and countertenor Jay Carter contributed supple solo lines. Much of the joy in this performance, though, was in the instrumental writing, particularly in the Sinfonia, in which Katelyn Emerson navigated the brisk, richly detailed organ line, with magnificent accenting supplied by the ensemble’s trumpets, oboes, strings and timpani, in a tight, high-energy performance conducted by Kaplan.
The concert’s only secular work, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 (BWV 1047), which closed the first half, focused on some of the Virtuosi’s instrumentalists. Trumpeter John Thiessen, violinist Adriane Post and flutist Emi Ferguson, along with oboist Ferrillo, each gave powerful, thoughtfully shaped accounts of their solo lines, both when they had the spotlight to themselves, and just as crucially, when they joined forces to bring Bach’s finely balanced counterpoint to life.
by Alan Kozinn for the Portland Press Herald