1998 Festival Reviews

Bach Party

Northwest Bach Festival celebrates its 20th season with many familiar events
Travis Rivers / Correspondent

Johan Sebastian Bach must be the most festival-ed composer who has ever lived. From Leipzig to London, from Boston to Bombay and beyond. Bach festivals abound.

Spokane's Northwest Bach Festival is celebrating its 20th season this year with 19 events including concerts, master classes and lectures.

Albert Schweitzer may have helped explain why Bach is so celebrated with festivals. Schweitzer wrote in his 1905 biography of Bach, "Everything leads up to Bach: he is the terminus point of everything that has gone before."

Schweitzer was mistaken, though, about Bach being the end of a line. Bach has influenced every great composer in western classical music, from Hayden, Mozart and Beethoven through Chopin and Brahms to Stravinsky and Messiaen. No wonder Bach is celebrated in festivals.

The easy way to make a Bach festival is to find musicians who know some of his music, line them up for a few concerts and be done with it. Spokane's Northwest Bach Festival has never worked quite that way. Since the beginning of the festival, Bach is heard here alongside music by his relatives, music by composers who influenced him and music by composers Bach influenced.

The festival has shown films of Bach's life and television interviews with famous Bach performers, presented operas by Bach's contemporaries, held panel discussions on early music performance and criticism, and performed plenty of Bach.

In the six years alone since composer-conductor Gunther Schuller became the Northwest Bach Festival's director, my count shows 125 works by 27 composers having been performed at festival concerts. Of Bach's own works, the range has been from the short songs he wrote as gifts for his wife, Anna Magdalena, to the monumental St. Matthew and St. John Passions and the Christmas Oratorio.

This years' festival will include performances of works by 15 different composers, including three members of he Bach family - Johan Sebastian and his sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Phillipp Emanuel -- along with composers to the east and west of Bach territory. Eastern Washington University offers college credit for attendance at festival events and presents lectures, masters classes and workshops with festival artists. Both Whitworth College and Gonzaga University sponsor master classes with singers in the festival.

This year is the first time a piano recital has been a part of the festival. German-born, Boston-based pianist Veronic Jochum will open the festival's concerts Friday at the Met with an all-Bach program including the Toccatta in G minor, the French Suite No. 5, the English Suite No. 6 and two transcriptions by composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni. The Chaconne in D minor from the Violin Partita No. 2 and the organ Chorale prelude "Sleepers Awake!" This is Jochum's first appearance at the Northwest Bach Festival.

In addition to her concert performance Friday, Jochum will present a masters class for pianists at EWU's Cheney campus today at noon in the Music Building Recital Hall.

Jochum, daughter of the distinguished conductor Eugen Jochum, began her piano studies in Munich and later studied in Switzerland with Edwin Fischer and in the United States with Rudolf Serkin. Jochum was awarded the Order of the Cross of Merit by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1994. She divides her time between residences in Boston, where she teaches at the Conservatory, and Munich.

Jochum performed with the Spokane Symphony at the Festival at Sandpoint in 1994, playing Schuller's Piano Concerto No. 2, a work she commissioned.

Sunday's program of organ music at St. John's Cathedral features another Bostonian, James David Christie, organist of the Boston Symphony and professor of organ at Wellesley College and the Boston Conservatory. Christie, a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory and the New England Conservatory was the first American to win first prize at the International Organ Competition at Bruges, Belgium.

Christie's program includes works by Bach, by his teachers Georg Boehm and Dietrich Buxrehude, by his pupil John Ludwig Krebs and by Johann Pachelbel (of Pachelbel's Canon fame). The Bach works on the program include the Chorale Partita "O Gott, du frommer Gott," the Toccatta in D major and the Fantasia and Fuge in G minor.

Wednesday's chamber music program at The Met, "The Bachs Cross the Rhine," features an aria from Bach's Cantata No. 126 and a movement from the sonata by his son Carl Phillipp Emanuel as well as works by French composers Francois Couperin, Jean-Philippe Rameau Marin Marais and Antoine Forqueray. Performers on the program include harpsichordist Ilton Wjuniski, viola da gambist Margriet Tindemans and bass-baritone Robert Honeysucker.

Both Tindemans and Wjuniski are familiar to Bach Festival audiences of past seasons. Honeysucker, making his Pacific Northwest debut at this year's festival, has performed with numerous orchestras and opera companies, including the Boston Symphony, Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Opera Ebony. He has also performed in German, New Zealand, and the Middle East.

The Bach Festival continues Feb. 6 with a concert of choral and orchestral music at St. John's Cathedral, and concludes Feb. 8 with a chamber music concert at The Met.

Each of the festival's five concerts will be preceded by a lecture by Verne Windham, music and arts director for KPBX public radio, beginning one hour before concert time.

All content © 1998 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.


Artful piano, organ performances enrich Bach Festival

Travis Rivers / Correspondent

Johann Sebastian Bach was surely the greatest keyboard player of his time, perhaps of any time. The Northwest Bach Festival brought in two outstandingly fine keyboardists to remind us of just how great Bach's keyboard music is.

The festival opened its 20th season Friday with an event that seemed, on first sight, downright controversial - a piano recital. Any potential controversy over the choice of the piano for Bach was silenced by the beauty of the playing of Veronica Jochum in her all-Bach recital at The Met.

Jochum's program displayed a wide variety of Bach's keyboard styles: dance styles in the English Suite No. 6 and the French Suite No. 5, and his improvisatory manner in the Toccata in G minor. She also included two bold and beautiful transcriptions by Ferruccio Busoni of Bach's music for other instruments, the Chaconne for solo violin and the organ chorale prelude "Sleepers Awake."

Jochum's performance was a reminder of the time, 50 years ago and more, when great concert pianists played Bach - both original music and in transcriptions - almost as a matter of habit. Then the early music purists convinced us that Bach's keyboard music should be heard only on the kind of instruments he played - the harpsichord, clavichord and organ. Bach on the piano was left to students and a few hard souls among concert pianists such as the late Glenn Gould and nowadays Alfred Brendel and Andras Schiff.

Jochum showed us just what we have been missing. She created phrases shaped as beautifully as a great singer might, and she provided a kaleidoscope of rich tone colors made possible by thoughtful control of the piano's great range of loud and soft. She made generous and skilled use of the piano's "soul" (to use Chopin's word) - the sustaining pedal.

But most prominent in Jochum's Bach playing was its natural expressiveness, whether in the blissful contentment of the Allemande of French Suite, the demonic energy of the Gigue of the English Suite or in the mounting drama of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne.

The pianist responded to audience enthusiasm with encores, the Minuet and Guige by Mozart and with her own transcription of Bach's deeply moving chorale prelude "O Mensch bewein' dein Sunde gross."

Sunday afternoon, James David Christie matched the skill and expressiveness of his acclaimed performance at last year's festival with his organ recitals at St. John's Cathedral. Christie's program showed three of Bach's greatest organ works in the context of works by composers who influenced him and a piece by J.L. Krebs, one of Bach's students. Like Jochum, Christie also played a transcription, proving that Bach's harpsichord Toccata in D major fits the organ like a sleek glove.

The organ at St John's does not take naturally tot he music of Bach; its vast range of symphonically colorful sound is better suited to 19th- and 20th-century music of Widor, Vierne and Messiaen, but Christie can be coaxed into great Bachian sounds, and pre-Bachian sounds, too.

Christie began with Georg Bochm's rousing Preludium in C major with its long opening solo for pedals that surely must have encouraged Bach to exploit fancy footwork in his own music. Similarly, Christie showed how two other earlier organists, Dietrich Buxtehude and Johann Pachelbel, led the way toward Bach's ability to turn short, simple ideas into grand structures.

What I found most compelling about Christie playing was the extraordinary variety of articulation - the infinite ways one note is either separated from or overlaps with another - he uses to create expression. The denser the music becomes, the more Christie uses a variety of articulation to clarify each strand of the texture. This he demonstrated magnificently in complexities of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E minor ("The Wedge") and in the virtuoso display of the Fantasie and Fugue in G minor.

Christie treated the audience to J.P. Sweelick's jaunty little pavan, "Malle Sijmen" (Simple Simon) as an encore.

Ardent performances such as Jochum's and Christie's give the 20th year of Northwest Bach Festival real cause for celebration.

All content © 1998 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.


Musicians give vivid festival performance

Travis Rivers / Correspondent

The Northwest Bach Festival crossed the Rhine into French musical territory Wednesday with a chamber music concert whose qualities made the trip worthwhile.

The Bach family was represented with three fine works by Johann Sebastian and his son Carl Phillipp Emanuel, but the concert was clearly a French victory.

Ilton Wjuniski - despite the Polish name, a French harpsichordist - was at the center of things, playing every work on the program. I have said it before, and I will say it again: Wjuniski is the best harpsichordist I know. His ability to make this instrument convey a wide range of emotional expression is unrivaled. So is his ability to partner other instrumentalists and singers.

What the harpsichord does most easily with its keyboard-operated plucked sound is provide energy and excitement to music - often sounding like an enormous guitar gone mad. What Wjuniski was able to do was enable the audience to visualize the quiet delicacy of Sister Monique, share the sadness of "L'attendrissante" and smile at the miniature windmills on a revolving music box in Francois Couperin's Suite No. 18.

Wjuniski's ability to give individuality to the shortest sections of music turned each of the variations of Jean-Phillippe Rameaus'a "Gavotte variee" into a character piece worthy of those talented street artists who can produce a caricature with a few strokes of pencil.

Margriet Tindemans proved a perfect partner for Wjuniski. Her playing of the viola da gamba was at its expressive best in Marin Marais' "Tombeau pour Mr. de Ste. Colombe." Movie buffs may remember Sainte Colombe and Marais as teacher and pupil in the film "Tous les Matins du Mond."

Tindemans and Wjuniski brought great intensity to the heavy sighs and occasional heaving sobs of Marais' homage to his master.

The pair made it great fun to try to identify the personality traits of Antoine Forqueray's four colleagues in his Suite No. 10, such as the sprightly but gruff "Bouron" and the high strung, tempermental "Leclair."

Tindemans and Wjuniski were equally at home with the Bach styles of father and son in J.S. Bach's Sonata in G minor and in the Andante from C.P.E. Bach's Sonata in C major. The finale of the latter work was the evening's welcomed encore.

Robert Honeysucker, a bass-baritone with a commanding low register and elegant diction, joined the Tendemans- Wjuniski team for an aria from J.S. Bach's Cantata "Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort" and Antenor's "Storm" monologue from Rameau's opera "Dardanus." Honeysucker's pitch was sometimes vague and the tone cloudy in the upper range, but his characterization of the love-sick Antenor - not knowing whether to fear more the storm, the dreaded sea monster or love - was very impressive.

All content © 1998 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.


Bach Festival Does Spokane Proud

Travis Rivers / Correspondent

The Northwest Bach Festival closed its 20th season with two concerts showing exceptional performances by both visiting artists and local performers.

Reviewing the past 20 years of the Bach Festival, I conclude that the combination of outstanding guest artists with highly committed local professionals is the key to the festival's continuing success.

The catalyst for making this combination work is inspired leadership, nowadays the leadership of one of the world's truly great musicians, Gunther Schuller.

At Friday's concert at St. John's Cathedral, Schuller conducted some of Bach's most familiar pieces and some of his most infrequently performed works. As always, he brought a fresh touch to even the best-known pieces.

Schuller opened and closed Friday's concert with two of Bach's most famous works, the Third and the Fifth Brandenburg Concertos. Both are often played in a bold, almost aggressive, fashion that misses the lightness and dancing character Schuller finds in Bach's music.

The adept soloists for the Brandenburg Fifth were Spokane's violinist Kelly Farris and flutist Gale Coffee, joined by French harpsichordist Ilton Wjuniski. Farris and Coffee neatly matched each other's smooth phrases as they floated on Schuller's bouncy accompaniment. Wjuniski made Bach's brilliant harpsichord part sparkle without ever sounding harsh. He is one of those few harpsichorists who can make the instrument sing as well as dance.

The Bach Choir, excellently trained by Tamara Schupman, sang the Sanctus in D, Bach's infrequently heard re-working of a Mass movement by 17th-century German composer Johann Kaspas Kerll. The Sanctus is a startling display of what Bach could do in bringing the style of a very different older composer into line with his own musical techniques and improving matters when Kerll's imagination ran out.

Somewhat more familiar, Cantata No. 60 "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort," presents a short but intense conversation between Fear (the alto solo) and Hope (the tenor). Fear remains unconvinced until the intercession of Jesus, whose comforting bass at last frees Fear. My only reservation about the performance lay in the difficulty I had in hearing altos JoAnne Bouma and tenor Fritz Robertson, both of whom sounded fine in rehearsal. Bass Robert Honeysucker, on the other hand, was both audible and imposingly rich sounding from where I sat.

The festival finale, a chamber music concert at the Met Sunday with members of the Spokane String Quartet and guests Ilton Wjuniski and Margriet Tindemans, provided a glimpse into the sources of Bach's style and the results that led from it. Bach's Bohemian predecessors J.H. Schmelzer and Heinrich Biber, were represented along with a sonata by his friend J.D. Zelenka and works from the circle of Bach and his students.

Wjuniski showed his accustomed musical sensitivity and technical elan both as soloist in the Harpsichord Concerto and as an accompanying partner elsewhere on the program. Tindemans likewise confirmed her reputation as a great viola da gamba player and as a performer on the baroque viola. The two are unexcelled in the basso continuo required for baroque composition.

Kelly Farris gave his usual intelligent and elegant playing to the Fugue in G minor thought, perhaps, to be by J.S. Bach. Its strange mixture of strict counterpoint and improvisatory passages hints at Bach's organ toccatas.

The evening's surprise came in the spirited, nimble-fingered playing of violinist Karen Walthinson. Spokane audiences know her playing as the violist of the Spokane String Quartet, occasional appearances as a violinist on the programs of Allegro and as a member of the second violin section of the symphony. Nothing previously known about her prepared me for the flair she exhibited Sunday in the intricacies of Biber and Schmelzer, nor for the fun she seemed to be having with the animal imitations in Biber's Sonata Representativa.

What pleasure to be introduced to a fine new talent alongside the established artists heard in previous Bach Festivals. These festivals are a justifiable source of pride in Spokane's musical life. Long may they thrive.

All content © 1998 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.