2006 Festival Reviews

Burst of passion concludes festival

Northwest Bach Festival Saturday at St. Augustine Church
Travis Rivers / Correspondent

February 12, 2006

The Northwest Bach Festival ended its 28th season in the roar of J.S. Bach's most famous organ work Saturday.

Organist James David Christie, nursing a hand injury sustained in a recent fall, brought a virtuoso's fire to Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" at the conclusion of his recital at St. Augustine.

Christie has remained a favorite of Bach Festival audiences since he joined the festival roster in 1997.

His performances have combined an intellectual's grasp of the way music works with a showman's wit and flair.

The program Christie chose was a showcase of 17th- and 18th-century works whose structure is based on variations over a repeated bass line, a technique beloved of baroque composers in pieces called chaconne or ciaconna, and passacaglia or passacaille.

The organist - collaborating with Spokane musicians soprano Darnelle Preston, violinists Kelly Farris and Misha Rosenker, violist Tana Bland and cellist Helen Byrne - showed the expressive range the composer could coax.

Besides the concluding "Toccata and Fugue," Christie included another inescapably popular baroque work, Johann Pachelbel's "Canon in D," coupled with its not-so-well-known companion piece, "Gigue."

"I don't know who decided to call it a 'canon,' " Christie said after the concert. "It's really a chaconne, and it's a shame that people don't get to hear the 'Gigue' more often. They belong together."

Christie, Farris, Rosenker, Bland and Byrne gave a formal lilt to the famous "Canon" before breaking into the "Gigue" that clearly betrayed its folk origins in the Irish jig.

Preston lent her light and flexible soprano to the ornamented lines of Dietrich Buxtehude's solo motet "Herr wenn ich nur dich hab" and to Henry Purcell's "Now That the Sun has Veiled His Light."

Of the remaining works on Saturday's program, my favorites were two sharply contrasting pieces: a blissfully pastoral "Ciaconna in F Minor" by Pachelbel and a colorful, highly decorated "Ciaconna in B-flat Major" by J.S. Bach's cousin John Bernhard Bach.

Christie showed the peaceful character of the St. Augustine organ's flute stops in the Pachelbel work and the instrument's colorful (sometimes humorous sounding) reeds in the Bernhard Bach.

Recent temperature and humidity changes made the organ misbehave a few times during the performance, giving a Stravinskian touch with notes that stuck and others that were alarmingly out of tune.

Make no mistake, though, the St. Augustine organ is a fine instrument, and Christie's performance on it showed its power of expression.

Christie had intended to end Saturday's recital with Bach's powerful but taxing "Passacaglia in C Minor," but his hand injury precluded it.

"If I'm invited back next year," he told the audience, "it will be the first thing on my program."

It will be worth the wait.

All content © 2006 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.


Bach's range brought vividly to life

Northwest Bach Festival Tuesday and Friday at The Davenport Hotel
Travis Rivers / Correspondent

February 5, 2006

The 28th annual Northwest Bach Festival continued this week with two concerts that provided excellent Bach performances and insights into the Bach era, with some surprises by his contemporaries and predecessors.

Those who imagine Bach's music to be essays in music's ingenious mechanics were doubtless surprised Tuesday by the engaging warmth that violinist Tracy Dunlop and harpsichordist Mark Kroll brought to Bach's "Sonata in A major for Violin and Harpsichord" (BWV 1015). The two brought freshness and vigor to the sonata's fast movements. Even more striking, though, was the tenderness with which Dunlop's violin floated over the soft staccato of Kroll's harpsichord in the work's Andante.

On the same program was viola da gambist Margriet Tindemans' adaptation of Bach's "Partita in E minor for Solo Flute" (BWV 1013). The silvery lightness of the viola da gamba's sound proved ideal for the Partita's four movements. Though the movements have the names of baroque dances, they seem to be more meditations on dancing rather than showing the physical act of movement.

But Friday, Tindemans and Kroll demonstrated just how physical baroque dances can be. Their performance of Friday's concert finale, Georg Philipp Telemann's "Sonata in A minor," a showy exhibition of spins and leaps, had the same exuberant energy as the film "Strictly Ballroom."

Tuesday, Kroll played what is probably the earliest surviving large-scale work by Bach, the infrequently performed, six-movement "Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother" (BWV 992). Kroll showed the teenage Bach capable of pathos in the work's lament and humor in its final fugue, a fugue teasingly based on the call of the horn from the carriage on which the beloved brother departs.

Casual listeners often think of the harpsichord as inexpressive. But throughout these Bach Festival performances, Kroll has shown otherwise. Most impressive was his performance Friday of four sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. Their emotional range was surprising - pungent dissonances biting as a flamenco guitar, startling pauses that would have brought a smile to Haydn or Beethoven, and the bustling energy in unremitting showers of fast notes. And these were only a few items in Scarlatti's expressive vocabulary that Kroll's performances explored.

Cellist John Marshall gave festival audiences a tour through the growth of cello playing, easily navigating the awkward leaps of Benedetto Marcello's "Sonata in G minor" Tuesday and giving continuity to the patchwork design of Domenico Gabrielli's "Three Ricerare" on Friday. But greater by far was Marshall's deeply engaged performance of Bach's "Fifth Cello Suite." All six of these suites summarize the cello techniques of Bach's time yet show how a single melodic line can serve up great expressive richness. I will cite only examples: the longing tension as adjacent notes collide in the Sarabande contrasted with the joyous glee in the skips and string crossings in the Allegro of the opening Prelude.

The audiences for the first two Bach Festival performances were considerably less than capacity. So it was a pleasure for both audience and performers to be present in a standing-room-only crowd for Friday's performance in the Davenport Hotel's Elizabethan Room. The performances at all three concerts deserved no less.

All content © 2006 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.


Bach Festival opens with encore-worthy show

Northwest Bach Festival Sunday at The Davenport Hotel
Travis Rivers / Correspondent

January 30, 2006

The 28th Northwest Bach Festival took off in high spirits in the Davenport Hotel's Marie Antoinette Room on Sunday afternoon with or without the music of J.S. Bach (more about that later).

For such high spirits to come across to the audience, the performers need to be in a festive mood. And Sunday's quartet of performers - violinists Misha Rosenker and Kelly Farris, viola da gambist Margriet Tindemans, and harpsichordist Mark Kroll - clearly had a good time in one another's company.

Rosenker, the newcomer to this year's festival, has a boyish, mischievous look about him that belies phenomenal technique and fine musicianship. He is clearly a welcome addition to the festival roster and to Spokane's musical community.

The afternoon began in Italian with a Spanish accent as Farris, Tindemans and Kroll played Domenico Scarlatti's "Sonata in D minor for Violin and basso continuo." Scarlatti was Italian, the son of a famous opera composer, who grew up in Spanish-governed Naples and spent most of his career at the royal courts of Portugal and Spain. Though famous for his more than 500 sonatas for solo harpsichord, Scarlatti also wrote a handful of sonatas for violin with harpsichord and a bass instrument.

Farris and his partners brought out the tart rhythmic spiciness that Scarlatti's biographer Ralph Kirkpartick called "the onions, garlic and peppers" in his music.

Rosenker joined Farris, Tindemans and Kroll for the lighthearted but cumbersomely titled "Deuxieme Recreation de Musique d'une execution facile" by Jean-Marie Leclair. The performers dealt with Leclair's musical sport like a game of badminton doubles as short musical motifs flew from one performer to the other. The "Badinage" movement seemed only a step or two away from a hoe-down.

The four performers addressed more serious business in Francois Couperin's "La Francaise." The work opens with respectful tribute by its French composer to the Italian Archangelo Corelli. Couperin follows his imitation of a Corelli-style sonata with seven very French dances, their melodies organized in highly ornamented short sentences. It was easy to hear why J.S. Bach was a great admirer of Couperin, though their musical language is as different as the crisp clarity of French is from the rambling complexity of German.

The program's final work was of debatable origin, "Trio Sonata in C major," once thought to be by Bach. Most scholars now think it is the work of J.G. Goldberg. Whether Goldberg was a pupil of Bach is a matter of debate.

Farris, Rosenker, Tindemans and Kroll played the work as though there were no doubt of its Bachian credentials. They brought an easy clarity to the fugue of the second movement and a witty liveliness to its final gigue.

The four returned to the stage for an encore, Leclair's "Le Tambourin," a work that showed the 18th century Frenchman's inclination to country fiddling as the "Deuxieme Recreation" heard earlier in the evening.

All content © 2006 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.


Handel's 'Messiah' expressive, intimate, a holiday joy to hear

Travis Rivers / Correspondent

December 3, 2005

Connoisseur Concerts began it's Northwest Bach Festival early this year, and not with a work by Bach, either. Handel's "Messiah" was given a glowing performance Friday night at First Presbyterian Church. Spokane audiences have learned to expect a fresh view of anything under Gunther Schuller's baton, and Friday's "Messiah" was filled with Schuller's revelations.

Schuller was abetted by a splendid quartet of guest soloists and of local musicians and choristers. What was most striking early in the performance was how carefully Schuller weighed the solemn and the light-hearted elements in this work, something that was immediately evident in the opening instrumental "Sinfony" (as Handel originally referred to the work's overture). The majesty of Handel's stately rhythms was succeeded by a dance-like allegro with the spice of ornamental figures Handel would have expected of his own orchestra.

Tenor Rockland Osgood set the tone for the vocal aspects of the performance with his opening accompanied recitative, "Comfort ye, my people." Every word of the text could be easily understood, a characteristic that remained true not only in the solo numbers but in the choruses, as well. Charles Jennens' libretto for "Messiah" is a masterpiece made up of passages from the Bible, but it is rare that all those words remain clear even in Handel's most complicated musical textures.

"Messiah" is a contemplative work rather than a drama with specific characters - very unusual in oratorios. But there is plenty of dramatically expressive music. And Friday's soloists were a wonderfully expressive lot. From the graceful agility of soprano Janet Brown in pieces such as "Rejoice greatly" and "He shall feed his flock," to the thunderous rage of bass-baritone James Maddalena in "Why do the nations so furiously rage together" or Osgood in "Thou shalt break them in pieces."

Mezzo-soprano Barbara Rearick spilled out her own rage in "But who may abide the day of His coming," but Rearick's tenderness in "He was despised" was even more deeply moving.

Since Schuller used an orchestra and chorus of about two dozen performers each, the performance group brought a very much more intimate feeling to this oratorio that has been subjected too often to the "cast of thousands" treatment. Particularly impressive were the fast-moving choruses such as "His yoke is easy" and "All we like sheep have gone astray." Such refreshing delicacy made the impact much greater in such solemn choruses as "Behold the Lamb of God" and the angry ones such as "Let us break their bonds asunder."

By design or coincidence, the choice of First Presbyterian Church for this "Messiah" performance matched almost exactly the size of Neale's Music Hall in Dublin, where "Messiah" was first heard. Both places accommodate an audience of about 600. It was unfortunate that there were empty seats on Friday.

Schuller did not break any speed records in Friday's performance in the way some conductors claiming to be committed to historical performance practice. But he did find the variety of expression that Handel brought to the biblical text Jennens chose - the way Handel's music shows contrasts of darkness and light, heavy burdens made light, and even references to the crucifixion and the resurrection. For me those contrasts are the keys to this work rather than a matter of speed or volume.

I sadly confess that I missed most of Part III of this performance. Had I not done so, you would not be reading these words. But my advice is: Hear this "Messiah" all the way through tonight, if you missed any or all of it Friday.

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