February 27, 2001
Saturday, Feb. 24, and Sunday, Feb. 25, at St. Augustine's Church and St. John's Cathedral
The 23rd annual Northwest Bach Festival ended over the weekend with J.S. Bach standing in the wings.
The composer who gives his name to the festival was either waiting to come onstage after being introduced by some of his organ-playing predecessors or listening (admiringly, I'll bet) to the effect his music had some 70 years later on Ludwig van Beethoven. Bach's predecessors dominated James David Christie's organ recital Saturday at St. Augustine's Church. Christie played the custom-built Martin Pasi organ at St. Augustine's as though he and the instrument had been made for each other.
Christie's program was made up of music that many organists dutifully plod through, paying homage to Bach's Dutch and German predecessors, then finishing off with Bach just to show how much greater and more interesting his music was. But Christie's approach to the earlier music made hearing those works an exciting adventure.
Sweelinck's Toccata, which began the recital, and the Ricercar that ended its first half showed the Dutch tradition that led to Bach's sonorous chords, his brilliant improvisatory flourishes and his mastery at interweaving melodies. Bach's own Toccata and Fugue, which ended the program, demonstrated just what happened as harmonies became more complex and adventurous in the 100-plus years that separated him from Sweelinck.
One of the most beautiful of the earlier works Christie selected was Samuel Scheidt's "Magnificat on the 9th Tone,'' the Virgin Mary's exultant hymn following the Annunciation. Here the increasing density of the organ sections were interspersed with baritone Max Mendez's excellent singing of alternate verses of the hymn in their plainsong version. Christie also paid tribute to the dance music that fed into Bach's style with three short, tuneful dances copied in 1599 by the 13-year-old Suzanne van Solt. Christie made them skip and whistle as they must have to the captivated girl who copied them.
Christie's Bach playing took advantage of the instrument at St. Augustine's; its bright, clear colors made Bach's involved textures seem as transparent as stained glass. The organ roared and gave the ears a good hard shaking when Bach's harmonies grew thorny, as they did in the Prelude and Fugue in C major. The enjoyment of Christie's performance by the standing-room-only audience was considerably enhanced by Vince Monaco's video projection of the organist at work in the organ loft, a sight which otherwise would have been invisible to the listeners.
Sunday's conclusion to the festival featured artistic director Gunther Schuller leading Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis'' at St. John's Cathedral.
Schuller always succeeds in putting his personal stamp on any work he conducts by moving aside and allowing the composer to put his personal stamp on it. In "Missa Solemnis'' that proved an especially important trait since, for Beethoven, this Mass was deeply personal - even intimate - despite its enormous size and complexity.
Schuller used a 49-piece orchestra and a comparable-sized choir. The choir, the best I can remember in 23 years of the Bach Festival, was excellently prepared by Spokane conductor Tamara Schupman. These smaller-than-usual forces made it possible for the quartet of vocal soloists to sing as boldly or as softly as Beethoven requires without either shouting or being drowned in instrumental accompaniment.
Here Beethoven added to Bach's mastery the new sonorities possible with the symphony orchestra instrumentation and the dramatic power of the formal concept of the symphony itself. Yet the "Missa Solemnis'' is full of incredibly soft passages. And in these the balance and blend of the vocal and instrumental forces was touchingly beautiful. The singers in the solo quartet - soprano Kendra Colton, mezzo soprano Gloria Raymond, tenor Rockland Osgood and baritone Robert Honeysucker - were sensitive, lyric artists who lent deep expressiveness to Beethoven's setting of the Mass's ancient Latin text.
The orchestra was able to bring out the colors in passages like the woodwind interludes in the "Gloria.'' The intrusion of the brasses with a military march in the accompaniment of the "grant us peace'' section of the "Agnus Dei'' made its effect without bombast. Concertmaster Kelly Farris played superbly in the long, concertolike violin solo of the "Benedictus.''
Sunday's performance did have a few minor flaws, the result of only three rehearsals for such a vast work. But none of these spoiled what was a glorious ending to this year's festival.
Schuller has a composer's gift of giving life to the work of other composers and selecting artists to help him do it. And the performance, along with others in the two-week festival, proved that Spokane has a gift in its Northwest Bach Festival.
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