2005 Festival Reviews

Bach Festival starts with a slight detour

Travis Rivers / Correspondent

January 31, 2005

The Northwest Bach Festival took a French turn as it began its 27th season over the weekend. Organist James David Christie showed the spectacular side of 19th-century organ music on the festival's opening concert at St. John's Cathedral Saturday, and four of the festival vocal soloists provided the contrasting meditative side of the French musical coin.

On Sunday, Gunther Schuller, the festival's artistic director, introduced the festival audience to Jean-Philippe Rameau's "Les Indes Galantes," the first Spokane performance I can remember of any dramatic work by Bach's French contemporary. Sunday's performance concluded with highly dramatic performances of five arias by Handel.

It seemed at first a little unnerving to have a Bach Festival begin without a note of Bach's, but the detour through Paris and London was well worth the sacrifice.

Christie prefaced his performance Saturday by saying, "For the first time since I have been coming to Spokane, I am playing no baroque music. But one of my great loves has always been the French romantic organ literature, and that music is beautifully suited to the organ here at St. John's."

The 19th-century French pipe organ isn't referred to as the "symphonic organ" for nothing. Its tonal palette is rich with color and it can roar or whisper with equal ease.

Christie opened with Cesar Franck's Organ Chorale in A minor, whose opening stacks one note on another until the church and the ear are shatteringly full, then dissolves that sound into a swirl of running figuration.

Christie ended the concert with the finale to Alexandre Guilmant's Sonata in D major, whose blazing climax exploited the organ's state trumpet pipes at the rear of the cathedral.

The organ work on the program not only displayed grandeur and speed, but songfulness and wit, too, in works from Franck and Guilmant to Jehan Alain and Langlais.

I couldn't help smiling at the quirky accents punctuating a continuous fast moving blur of notes in the inner part of Albert Alain's Scherzo in a style very close to Mendelssohn's, but with a dollop of tart French sauce.

Christie was joined by soprano Janet Brown, mezzo-soprano Barbara Rearick, tenor Rockland Osgood and baritone James Maddalena in a program that included eight short motets by Faure, Saint-Seans and Poulenc and a very brief Mass by Jehan Alain. The beautiful little works are rarely performed in the United States.

All four soloists showed great aptitude for the French vocal style, a cool sweetness which allowed each to project the quiet fervency of these tiny masterpieces.

The singers were joined by two excellent young performers - violinist Stephanie Tintinger and flutist Jonathan Westfield - who played instrumental obbligatos in motets by Faure, Tournemire and Alain.

Schuller opened Sunday's performance with Rameau's Overture to his ballet "Zais." "It is the earliest work I know that opens with a bass drum solo," Schuller told the Met audience.

The barely audible rumble of the bass drum is followed with disconnected snatches representing chaos that only gradually take on clear form. It was a brilliant tour de force of orchestration which came off a bit tentatively Sunday, but nonetheless showed what an inventive orchestral thinker Rameau was, as well as Schuller's inventiveness in programming Rameau in this festival.

The centerpiece of Sunday's program was "The Incas of Peru," the second entree from Rameau's opera-ballet "Les Indes Galants." The plot is … well, thin and all too obvious - a love triangle involving an evil Inca priest of the sun, the European good guy conquistador, and the innocent Inca princess they both desire.

Brown, Osgood and Maddalena brought the same fine singing and elegance of style they had shown in Saturday's concert. And Schuller showed a light touch with Rameau's orchestral evocation of the Peruvian forest and the dances of the worshippers of the sun, and unleashed two orchestral outbursts as a volcano explodes not once, but twice. The work was sung in English in Schuller's serviceable translation, but there was really no help for Louis Fuzilier's feeble story. Rameau's music said brilliantly everything that needed to be said.

Saturday's performance ended with five arias by Handel, internationally the most famous of Bach's contemporaries. Practically everyone knows of the beauty and vigor of Handel's melodies. But, under Schuller's baton, Rearick and Maddalena showed just how powerfully dramatic they were, whether in the blissful ease of Rearick's "Ombra mai fu" or in Maddalena's sizzling "The Trumpet Shall Sound." Both performers (and trumpet player William Berry) added a tasteful amount of ornamentation. And Schuller brought out the clarity and dramatic quality of the orchestral parts, as we have come to expect.

All content © 2005 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.


Harpsichord, strings offer fine conversation

Travis Rivers / Correspondent

February 2, 2005

Tuesday's Bach Festival performance in the elegant Marie Antoinette Room of the Davenport Hotel lived up to its billing as an "intimate evening with J.S. Bach and his French colleague Rameau."

The performance showed that there was a lot more to the lives of these baroque musicians than the church services that consumed Bach's time and the lavish court life that was the center of Rameau's.

The brilliant Boston-based harpsichordist Mark Kroll was joined by two splendid Spokane musicians, violinist Kelly Farris and cellist John Marshall, in music that showed what the quieter, less public sides of these men were like.

Farris, the concertmaster of the Spokane Symphony, opened the evening with Bach's Sonata in A minor for Solo Violin.

Listening to Farris in the profoundly serious, meditative prelude that opens the sonata seemed like being allowed to see Bach sitting by a fire long after the family was in bed, thinking "night thoughts" of just how far one can take tiny musical ideas.

And the Fugue which followed showed how far Bach was willing to go in coaxing the last bit of emotional juice out of such an idea.

Farris, as always, looked like such a cool, unflappable professional. And professional he was, but his performance was filled with Bach's passion.

Kroll showed the French side of the baroque coin in performances of works by Rameau and the unscheduled addition of pieces by Francois Couperin.

Kroll found the elegance and wit, and dare I say, the charm, of pieces with the titles "The Sighs," "The Reaper" and (somewhat puzzling) "The Mysterious Barricades." But he made clear, too, the intricacy of construction that went far beyond mere courtly allure into the territory of harmonic adventure and subtle musical tone painting.

John Marshall, whose admirable playing as the Spokane Symphony's principal cellist and in chamber music performances with the Spokane String Quartet, has always left me wondering what his solo playing might be like.

Well, it's beautiful, as he showed in Bach's Suite in C minor for Solo Cello. Like Bach's works for unaccompanied violin, the suites are perpetual challenges for a cellist. The C minor Suite offered Marshall the chance to show how Bach responded to the mellow cello sound in the opening prelude and the all-too-short Sarabande.

And, for contrast, he showed, too, how Bach could make the cello turn, lift and glide in the work's fast dance movements.

When Bach added the harpsichord to the violin in the six sonatas he wrote for that combination, he brought a new turn to the form, exploiting the possibility of dialogue between the violin and the harpsichordist's right hand, or even a three-way conversation with the keyboardist's left hand joining in. The risk of having a visiting artist join with local performers proved no risk at all with Kroll and Farris.

They played together like old friends, as was immediately apparent from the first in the running conversation of the opening movement.

Tuesday's concert proved the aptness of the Latin inscription on the festival's harpsichord, a fine instrument by the Portland maker Per Walthinsen: "Music is a delight, a friend and a balm for sadness."

All content © 2005 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.


Bach can still pack 'em in, but crowd exits quickly

Music lovers fill church on Super Bowl Sunday
Rob McDonald / Staff Writer

February 7, 2005

Harpsichord and Bach?
On Super Bowl Sunday?
In a church in northeast Spokane?
Would anyone show?

To the delight and surprise of some attendees, about 300 people arrived for the free and intimate concert with two renowned artists at the Mary Queen Catholic Church. Not that they stayed long afterward.

That's how the 27th Annual Northwest Bach Festival concluded Sunday – with Super Bowl Bach, which started 90 minutes before kickoff.

Even guest tenor Rockland Osgood, a graduate of the New England Conservatory, pointed out to organizers how close the afternoon concert was to Sunday's big game with his beloved New England Patriots playing.

"My wife is Tivoing the whole thing for me," he said after his performance.

Osgood chatted with patrons as he headed for the door to catch the game scheduled to start 15 minutes after the concert ended.

Even artistic director Gunther Schuller was moving briskly for the exit afterward, said Gertrude Harvey, executive director of Connoisseur Concerts, organizer of the Bach festival.

The whole idea of the concert is to bring the weeklong Bach event into the community, Harvey said. This is the second year a concert has been held in the small church at 3423 E. Carlisle.

"It's a beautiful way to end the festival," Harvey said.

In the crowd were new faces to the event alongside longtime regulars, Harvey said.

Richard Russell, who's from Olympia, comes to Spokane each winter to ski. Each year, he makes a point to attend as many concerts as possible.

Russell was impressed with Mark Kroll, one of the world's leading harpsichordists. Kroll and Osgood made for an intimate performance, which was perfect for the cozy church, Russell said.

"They were very impressive," Russell said.

An earlier show at the larger St. John's Cathedral was hindered by bad acoustics, Russell said. Mary Queen provided much better sound, he said.

Dr. Coy Fullen, a family doctor for the Indian Health Service on the Colville Indian Reservation, drove in from Colbert to catch the show. Fullen had a little trouble finding the church.

Angela Snyder, a student at Eastern Washington University, said she came to the event as part of a class. Snyder is a vocal performer working on her master's degree in music.

"I didn't know what to expect," Snyder said. But when she came, the church pews were nearly filled and she sat near the back. Even on Super Bowl Sunday, Spokane loves Bach.

All content © 2005 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.