2011 Festival Reviews

Range of moods, playing brilliance are fitting end
to Bach Festival

Travis Rivers / Correspondent

March 14, 2011

The 33rd annual Northwest Bach Festival ended Saturday at St. John's Cathedral with a stunning survey of 160 years of keyboard music. Pianist Randall Hodgkinson brought a brilliant technique and probing musicality to this immense repertoire before, after and including Bach.

Hodgkinson began Saturday's recital with William Byrd's "Pavan and Galliard - Kinburgh Goodd" written sometime before 1591, a century before Bach. The pianist admitted that he had not known much of Byrd's music at all before festival director Gunther Schuller asked him to learn the work. But Byrd's music seemed like an old friend as Hodgkinson quickly established the somber mood of the Pavan followed by the springing step of the Galliard.

Byrd's ornaments for the three sections of each dance never seemed fussily decorative, but were integrated easily into the flow of the music. Byrd's music, and all the works on Saturday's program, were intended for earlier keyboards such as the harpsichord or clavichord. But Hodgkinson made them convincingly beautiful on the modern concert grand.

Johann Sebastian Bach himself was represented by his well-known French Suite No. 5, written midcareer, and his seldom-performed Sonata in D major (BWV 963), written when he was 19.

A friend in the audience asked at intermission where Bach would likely have played his French Suites. "At home," was my answer - a feeling confirmed by the intimate approach of Hodgkinson's performance. Even the running scales of the Courante and the skipping rhythms of the Bourée and Gigue had the ease of being played in someone's candlelit living room rather than the glaring light of a concert hall.

The early Sonata, Hodgkinson pointed out in remarks from the stage, was written in the format Bach would later turn to in his toccatas. Sections in chordal style alternated with parts where melodies overlay each other in fugues. Bach separates these sections with abrupt interruptions in slow sections in alarmingly distant keys. Hodgkinson made the interruption before the final fugue effectively humorous since the fugue's melodies combine the repeated-note clucking of a hen and the call of the cuckoo.

Schuller had asked Hodgkinson to end Saturday's recital with sonatas by two Iberian composers who wrote during Bach's old age or after his death - the Portuguese prodigy Carlos Seixas and the Spanish priest Antonio Soler.

"The characteristic these sonatas have in common are their physicality," Hodgkinson told the audience. Sure enough, leaping hand crossings, flashy interlocking running scales and guitar-like repeated notes gave a flamenco vigor to these two sonatas. The mournful lament with heavy sighs in the slow movement of Seixas' Sonata No. 17 was also redolent - another side of flamenco.

Sure enough, leaping hand crossings, flashy interlocking running scales and guitar-like repeated notes gave a flamenco vigor to these two sonatas. The mournful lament with heavy sighs in the slow movement of Seixas' Sonata No. 17 was also redolent - another side of flamenco.

Soler's Sonata No. 5 was written in the very unusual - for those days, at least - key of D-flat major. And it featured keyboard-spanning arpeggios that ended in a grumbling trill low on the instrument. This sonata contained lots more fun than one expects in a work by a priest, even one who worked at the royal court. Hodgkinson delighted in Soler's flair; so did the audience.

Hodgkinson responded to the audience's enthusiastic ovation with another of Soler's sonatas, this one more delicate but no less difficult. The music's variety of moods and the excellence of Hodgkinson's performance made this a fitting capstone to this year's Northwest Bach Festival.

All content © 2011 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.


Festival explores breadth of Bach's influence

Travis Rivers / Correspondent

March 7, 2011

The first two concerts of this year's Northwest Bach Festival celebrated the net Bach cast over the musical world. Bach knew music written long before his birth, and Bach's compositions extended his influence well after his death.

Conductor Gunther Schuller and the musicians of the 33rd Annual Northwest Bach Festival hauled in a significant catch of the music in that net Tuesday and Saturday at St. John's Cathedral. The 85-year-old Schuller's enthusiasm shows through in the dancing energy he brings to the rhythms and the careful balance he brings to dissonance and resolutions in the harmony. The music moves inexorably forward and is never flat-footed.

Tuesday's program focused on the concerto, just one of the forms Bach took up from his predecessors. Schuller led a chamber orchestra and local soloists Jason Moody, John Bennett, Keith Thomas and William Berry in spirited exploration of four concertos from Bach's time.

Moody opened Tuesday's concert with deliciously improvisatory playing of the Adagio for violin and strings from Francesco Antonio Bonporti's Concerto in F major. Though Bonporti was a priest, he might just as well been an opera composer, as Moody showed in the operatic intensity of this famous Adagio. Schuller had Moody encore the Adagio at the end of Tuesday's program.

Bach wrote who-knows-how-many concertos for a concert series he conducted in a Leipzig coffeehouse in the 1720s and '30s - some for single soloists, others for two or more soloists. Bach often reworked some of these concertos for completely different instruments. The Concerto for Violin and Oboe is one such reworking. Bach's Concerto for Two Harpsichords (BWV 1060) was originally for violin and oboe, and modern musicologists have made attempts to reconstruct the original. Their results (there are at least three of them) now rival the two-harpsichord version in popularity.

Violinist John Bennett and oboist Keith Thomas responded like genial conversationalists to the dialog of the concerto's fast movements and made the central slow movement sound like a duet from one of Bach's cantatas.

Trumpet soloist William Berry encountered every brass player's nightmare with a sticking valve on his piccolo trumpet at the beginning of G.P. Telemann's Concerto in D. Berry dealt with it and gave Telemann's work a delightful sparkle.

Two of Bach's church cantatas provided the core of Saturday's concert. But Schuller began the program with Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Easter Week motet, "The Denial of St. Peter." This tiny oratorio is seldom performed but deeply moving. Countertenor Josh Haberman was dramatically effective in projecting Peter's three increasingly angry denials. And tenor Rockland Osgood's singing of the part of Jesus was appropriately calm and resigned.

Had Bach known this Frenchman's work - there is no reason to believe he did - the motet might have been seen as an influence on the similarly anguished scene in Bach's St. John Passion.

Schuller chose the earliest known of Bach's church cantatas, along with one of the first cantatas Bach wrote on assuming his job in Leipzig for Saturday's concert. Both have startling endings. Cantata No. 77, "Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben" (Thou Shalt Love the Lord, thy God), ends with a harmony that sounds one chord short of a satisfying end. Cantata No. 71, "Gott ist mein König" (God is My King), does not end so much as it stops abruptly.

Saturday's performance had the advantage of excellent soloists along with a responsive chorus and orchestra. Soprano Janet Brown brought her customary uncanny skill with Bach's florid melodies and complex ornamentation, but she never let that virtuosity intrude on her arias' emotional intensity.

Mezzo-soprano Katherine Growdon showed a glowing tone and great versatility in her two arias, both with trumpet obbligato. The lament "Ach, es bleibt in meiner Liebe" (Ah, There Remains in My Love) from Cantata No. 77 has an unusually soft and lyrical trumpet line played with subtle warmth by Berry and matched by Growdon. The firmly martial "Durch mächtige Kraft" (Through Powerful Strength) from Cantata No. 71 features three trumpets and timpani with Growdon showing the heft called for in the text.

Bass soloist Donald Wilkinson, who in past festivals has shown the strength of his high register, showed the depths of his range Saturday in "Tag und Nacht ist Dein" (Day and Night are Thine) from Cantata No. 71. Osgood sang with the agility and clarity that Bach Festival audience have come to expect from him.

All content © 2011 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.