February 26, 2008
Gunther Schuller celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Northwest Bach Festival on Sunday with a powerful and deeply moving performance of "St. Matthew Passion" at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.
And what a celebration it was. The concert marked Schuller's 16th season as the festival's artistic director and the first festival performance to be heard at the Fox.
The Boston-based Schuller last conducted "St. Matthew Passion" here in 1995, and this performance reunited the same quintet of excellent vocal soloists with several orchestra players and choristers from that earlier performance.
But Schuller, as always, brought the freshness of a newly examined view to a work he considers "arguably the greatest masterpiece, ever."
Schuller conducted the opening chorus, "Kommt, ihr Toechter, hilft mir klagen," as though time and space did not exist. The Festival Chorus and Orchestra (two orchestras and two choruses, really) were joined by a children's chorus to evoke the sorrow of the passion narrative.
The same other-worldliness pervaded the final chorus, with its four interpolated vocal solos. At the end I was astonished to look at my watch and see that three-and-a-half hours had gone by.
Even with an intermission, that's a long time. How did Bach do that? For that matter, how did Schuller and company do it?
After the wonder of the mood-setting opening, it was clear that the person Bach (and Schuller) leans on most to move through this work is the tenor soloist singing the role of the narrating Evangelist.
Rockland Osgood was ideal for this part. He combines the secure vocal technique that allows him to sing beautifully in the part's cruelly high tessitura with the stunningly clear diction that makes it possible to follow the gospel's narration of the story without once having to look at a printed libretto.
It should be noted here that Schuller elected to have the narrative recitatives sung in English while keeping German for the choruses and arias. Any misgivings I might have had about this approach proved wholly misguided.
The arias were sung by Osgood and by sopranos Janet Brown and Kendra Colton, mezzo-soprano Barbara Rearick and bass-baritone James Maddalena. As singers with "Schuller experience," all were commanding.
But special mention must be made of the splendid singing of Max Mendez, a Spokane baritone who sang the role of Jesus. His clarity and assurance was a match to Osgood's. Their partnership Sunday was crucial to the work's success.
Schuller commented in an interview last week about the extraordinary variety of orchestral and vocal colors Bach achieved in the "St. Matthew Passion."
No two arias or choruses have exactly the same combination of singers and instrumentalists. That variety affords a surprise at every turn of the page.
There were a couple of special Schuller touches, too. To provide even greater clarity in some of the complex polyphony, he had the harp (beautifully played by Leslie Stratton Norris) along with the organ and harpsichord in some of the accompaniments.
Another striking color added by Schuller, based on the model used by Bach in his earlier "St. John Passion," was the sturdy sound of the contrabassoon added to Bach's weightier choruses. The part was played with his usual easy assurance by Luke Baaken.
The ability of the choral singers to shift character so abruptly from the angry throng demanding Jesus' crucifixion to the lamenting believers in "Wie wunderbarlich ist doch diese Strafe!" was mighty impressive. Equally fine was the sonority of the chorus, whether singing a simple hymn setting or an elaborately polyphonic chorus.
Sunday's performance had several excellent combinations of a solo singer and a solo instrumentalist, a roster that included flutist Bruce Bodden, oboist Keith Thomas, viola da gambist Stephen Swanson and violinist Tracy Dunlop among others. Harpsichordist Mark Kroll and cellist Cheryl Carney provided the firm backbone of the basso continuo group.
Not everything was perfect. There were some shaky moments of misaligned ensemble, such as in the big chorale fantasy that ends Part I of the Passion. And there was a brief derailment separating the mezzo-soprano soloist and the accompanying instrument in the "Ach Golgotha" recitative in Part II. But these were minor blemishes on a fine performance.
After the concert, I encountered an orchestral violist. "Are you tired?" I asked "I'm famished," she said.
Hungry, yes. But well-nourished artistically.
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February 9, 2008
The 30th Northwest Bach Festival took off Friday with a remarkable organ recital by Kraig Scott at St. Augustine Catholic Church. Scott called this series of ten works by Bach "The Contemplative Bach," and he asked for no applause until the end. It was a recital that was as long as some Mahler symphonies. But the audience respected his no-applause request and gave Scott a resounding standing ovation at the evening's end. Scott arranged a series of organ chorale preludes and a couple of virtuoso organ works around Bach's Chorale Partita "O Gott, du frommer Gott" (Oh God, Thou Faithful God) played, not as a single unit but broken up into its successive eight variations, interspersed with complementary organ pieces - some chorale based, other not. The program gave the texts (unfortunately not literal translations, but ones that could have been be sung) of the chorale-based works which showed a seven-ages-of-man approach to the series from the quiet introductory "Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Her" (All Glory Be To God On High) to the mighty ending in the Passacaglia in C minor. Scott made imaginative use of colors in St. Augustine's organ. I smiled at the smooth way the flute stops of the Adagio of the Third Organ Sonata moved into the perkiness of the third variation of "O Gott, du frommer Gott." Scott made excellent use of a noisy pedal reed stop here and there in the program where chorale text called for "building on the Rock" or "the dead awakening." Colors were beautifully thought out to build to the recital's roaring climax in the Passacaglia. Scott's idea of contrasting the free-ranging Fantasia and Fugue in G minor early in the program with the slowly building rigor of the concluding Passacaglia was ingenious. Here is a brilliantly talented young performer who has an idea about shaping a program and the technical skill to make it dramatically effective.
EWU Music Professor emeritus
Spokane Writer On Music