2007 Festival Reviews

Bach fest pleasurably surprising

Northwest Bach Festival Saturday at the Spokane Club Sunday at the Davenport Hotel
Travis Rivers / Correspondent

February 19, 2007

Johann Sebastian Bach's music, like automobiles, comes in the luxury-car format, in big pieces such as the B minor Mass or the St. Matthew Passion, and in the economy model, such as the more modest-size keyboard works and chamber music. This year's 29th Northwest Bach Festival featured the economy models. But the musical trip was an enormous pleasure.

This year's festival took an unusual turn Saturday with a concert at the Spokane Club, which furnished "Bach With A Twist," as the program title had it. Gunther Schuller, the festival's artistic director is famous as a historian of jazz.

But the local leadership surprised Schuller by scheduling a musical match between harpsichordist Mark Kroll playing Bach straight and the Brent Edstrom Trio - Edstrom on piano, with bassist Brian Flick and drummer Rick Westrick providing the same music in a jazz version.

Before the classical listeners Saturday had a chance to cringe at the thought of such sacrilege, the players showed how vibrantly Bach's music – in this case seven movements from the "Goldberg" Variations - could respond to such varied approaches. The modern Jazz Quartet's John Lewis and his harpsichordist wife, Marijana, invented the chess match idea in the 1950s.

I was particularly intrigued at how easily Edstrom and his cohorts made the opening aria glide over Bach's bass line, adopting a swing version of some of the original's melodic figures. Kroll has been over this territory many times and was able to fill Bach's virtuoso demands without flinching. And the Edstrom trio players, new to this game, fell right into line showcasing Bach's melodic resources, whether in the piano part or in Flick's solos in the bass' high register. Westrick furnished quietly inventive ideas with brushes on the drums. This was chamber music that would have caused Bach to flash a surprised smile, just as others in the audience did.

Saturday's program began and ended with soprano Tamara Schupman singing baroque arias with Kroll and cabaret songs by Kurt Weill with the trio. She has the personality of a cabaret singer though her pitch was often uncertain.

The festival ended Sunday in the Elizabethan Room of the Davenport Hotel with a rare opportunity to hear an instrument already going out of fashion in Bach's time: the lute. At Sunday's concert, it was in the hands of an exceptional master, Olav Chris Henriksen. Henriksen opened with a Prelude and Fantasie in C minor by Bach friend, Silvius Leopold Weiss. This was a beautifully expressive pair of pieces showed Weiss's seemly improvisatory side in the Prelude and his more rigorous constructiveness in the Fantasie.

Bach, too, wrote a handful of lute pieces, perhaps inspired by Weiss's skill and inventiveness. Henriksen chose the Suite in G minor which also exists as the Suite in C minor for Solo Cello. The contrast of the lute's tender expressiveness make the cello version - which was performed at last year's festival - seem very assertive, even aggressive.

After intermission, Kroll performed eight preludes from Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier." He began with the Prelude in E-flat minor, a deeply expressive saraband that would have suited the sound of the lute. Kroll continued through a series that showed how easily Bach's personality emerged.

The program ended with Georg Philipp Telemann's Trio in G major for Harpsichord, Cello and Lute in which Kroll and Henriksen were joined by Spokane Symphony cellist John Marshall. Marshall and Kroll made the most of their dazzlingly, showy parts with Henriksen furnishing a subdued accompaniment. The trio rewarded the capacity audience – one of the most quietly attentive I've seen in a long time – with Ignaz Moscheles' gloss on Bach's Prelude No. 1 from the "Well-Tempered Clavier" with the keyboard part as Bach wrote it and a Schumann-like songful melody for the cello supported by bass murmuring from the lute. An extraordinary end to an unusual concert.

All content © 2007 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.


Vivaldi and Bach settings inspire at Schuller's lead

Northwest Bach Festival, Friday, St. John's Cathedral Northwest Bach Festival, Friday, St. John's Cathedral
Travis Rivers / Correspondent

February 18, 2007

Gunther Schuller conducted the music of Vivaldi and Bach at the Northwest Bach Festival on Friday at St. John's Cathedral in Spokane. It was a trip to genius and beyond.

The cathedral itself was in something of disarray with about a third of the pews removed for the installation of new stained glass windows. The remaining seats, though, were full.

Friday's concert opened with Antonio Vivaldi's "Dixit Dominus" (RV 595), one of the Italian master's two settings of Vulgate Psalm 109 (110 in the King James Bible). Schuller admitted in an interview last week that he had ignored Vivaldi in past years of the festival, which has included all sorts of other baroque composers besides Bach.

"I find he wrote a lot of 'wallpaper music,' but every once in a while there's, 'Wow!' " Schuller said.

"Dixit Dominus" is one of those "wows," and showed a side of Vivaldi that those who know him only as the composer of the "Four Seasons" have missed, namely that he was a genius composer of vocal music. Musicologist Jane Ellsworth told the audience before the performance that Vivaldi wrote more than 40 operas and many other vocal works, both secular and sacred. That experience showed in "Dixit Dominus."

The text is full of militant - even violent - imagery, but Vivaldi's music is gracefully, though demandingly, operatic. Schuller's approach gave the work a lightness that seemed more suited to a Vespers service, as Vivaldi obviously intended, than an evening of threats and skull crushing at the opera. The Lord's pronouncement that "I will make your enemies your footstool," for instance, was insistent rather than pounding.

The orchestral playing and choral singing, too, were light and clear. And the five soloists – sopranos Jane Brown and Kendra Colton, mezzo soprano Barbara Rearick, tenor Riceland Osgood and bass Donald Wilkinson - would have been quite at home in any baroque opera production.

After intermission, Schuller returned to Johann Sebastian Bach and his "Magnificat," and the audience was taken into a world beyond genius.

Like Vivaldi's "Dixit Dominus," Bach's "Magnificat" was intended for a Vespers service. Its text is Mary's song of praise from Luke's Gospel. Bach's handling of the Virgin's shifting mood, through instrumentation and choices of solo voices, was a musical world away from Vivaldi's mere genius.

The contrast between Colton's earthier soprano in "My spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior" and Brown's more vulnerable sound in the next aria, "For He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden," with Keith Thomas' plaintive oboe d'amore obbligato, showed Bach's command of subtle characterization. So did Rearick's "He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich He has sent away empty."

Schuller and his forces brought exceptional transparency to Bach's complex textures and adventurous harmonies as well as to Vivaldi's florid, operatic style. The two works combined for a short but beautiful evening.

All content © 2007 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.