2013 Festival Reviews

Zuill Bailey caps Northwest Bach Festival with
extravagant cello performance

Donivan Johnson / Correspondent

March 26, 2013

The final concert of this year's Northwest Bach Festival featured internationally renowned cellist Zuill Bailey performing all six of the Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by J.S. Bach. Bailey has been designated the festival's new artistic director following the 20-year leadership of Gunther Schuller, who came from Boston for this performance.

Written while Bach was in the employ of Prince Leopold of Coethen, the six suites were part of a productive part of Bach's life in which the violin sonatas and partitas, Brandenburg Concerti, book one of the "Well-Tempered Clavier" and many other instrumental works were composed.

Bailey began Suite No. 1 in G major without spoken introduction. When he finished he commented "I don't know how my brain is going to go through the focus and inspiration." Referring to the performance of all six suites in order during a single concert, Bailey added, "It's a very scary thing."

Before Bailey performed Suite No. 4 in E flat major, he wryly told his audience that "All the rules change. The music now becomes like an animal untamed.” He was referring to the difficult key of E flat and that it would be "beautiful for the keyboard." He continued to enrich the audience with a demonstration of how his mother, an organist, played the Prelude from this suite for him when he was first learning it.

After a much-needed extended intermission, for both audience and performer, Bailey performed the final two suites: No. 5 in C minor and No. 6 in D major with consummate technique and unbelievable feeling for Bach's music.

Thirty-six movements in nearly three hours and no two sounded anything alike. The infinite variety of Bach's musical mind was fully matched by Bailey's immense understanding of these six suites. He told the audience that "Bach teaches you about yourself; Bach is a complex medicine and no other composer shows us something new each time."

In a review such as this I only have space enough to mention one musical element of many that, in the incredible acoustical environment of St. John's Cathedral, really caught my attention and earned my absolute admiration: dynamics. Bailey's subtle shading and nuance, especially in the Sarabande (slow) movements was astonishing. The Sarabande in the Suite No. 5, which renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich called "the essence of Bach's genius," was performed as if time and space were suspended for both performer and audience. Yo-Yo Ma played the same movement Sept. 11, 2002, at the site of the World Trade Center.

Bailey received well-deserved standing ovations both after the first and second parts of the concert. As an encore, he played once again the famous Prelude from Suite No. 1 in G major. He dedicated this encore to Schuller, who appeared deeply moved by this homage from his successor; the concert ended with Bailey saying "the circle is complete."

Donivan Johnson, who lives in Metaline Falls, Wash., is a composer, lecturer and music instructor for the Selkirk School District.

All content © 2013 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.

Schuller delights festival audience

Donivan Johnson / Correspondent

March 13, 2013

Gunther Schuller's valedictory concert Saturday for the Northwest Bach Festival was, in one sense, his way of slyly reminding us that "there is nothing new under the sun." The four pieces programmed were an aural revelation for the audience.

Capriccio Stravagante ("Extravagent Caprice") by Carlo Farina (1600-1639) was, for its time, a very modern work. As Schuller noted, "it was the first string orchestra composition that used techniques of col legno (using the wood of the bow), sul ponticello (near the bridge) and pizzicato."

This delightful piece was replete with "wrong notes" and animal imitations, and the final bars were simply conducted in silence by the conductor.

The centerpieces of Saturday's concert were two of J.S. Bach's most beloved instrumental works. The Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1042 featured guest soloist Yuri Namkung. Schuller called this concerto "one of Bach's greatest creations "it is so clear, beautifully written with Mozartean clarity."

Namkung was superb in not being a flashy soloist but serving as a member of the ensemble. She was musically engaged at all times during the three movements.

Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047 followed after intermission. The concertino (small group) consisted of: Ryan Beach, trumpet; Namkung, violin; Bruce Bodden, flute; and Keith Thomas, oboe.

All four quartet members gave dazzling performances as they took turns with the themes. The balance between the four of them and the large ensemble was excellent. Once again, as they did March 2, the continuo group of harpsichord, cello and bass provided a rock-solid foundation for the entire concerto.

The programming for this concert was sheer genius with two of Bach's best-known works framed by two pre-Bach era selections. The final composition was Ecce Beatam Lucen ("Beautiful Light"), "A Motet in 40 Parts. Allessandro Striggio (1536-1592) wrote this work, one of only two of his that still exist, without definite performance instructions. Schuller orchestrated this amazing piece for 10 groups of four that included singers and instrumentalists. He said, "It was some kind of religious drama, perhaps for a cardinal or bishop. It uses only seven different triads "and is quite amazing."

The Gonzaga University Chamber Singers, directed by Timothy Westerhaus, gave a stunning performance along with the orchestra. The work is only about five minutes long, so Schuller told the audience to "close your eyes and just listen the first time." The ensembles then repeated the motet. The choral sound was sublime as were the dynamics, phrasing and those points of silence that transfixed the audience. This masterful performance and "re-creation" of a centuries-old work makes the neo-Renaissance sounds of modern composers pale in comparison.

On Sunday pianist Christopher O'Riley, popular host of "From the Top" on National Public Radio, performed Bach's Goldberg Variations BWV 988 to a capacity audience at St. John's Cathedral. This was the only performance of this work during the history of the Northwest Bach Festival. O'Riley remarked that the "story of how these variations came to be may be apocryphal given recent research."

However apocryphal or spurious the legend, there was absolutely nothing spurious about O'Riley's dazzling, spellbinding performance of this difficult work. His technique, dynamics and emotional nuances were flawless. His hands transformed Bach's music in such an uncanny manner that the audience was totally silent during the entire length of the piece.

O'Riley was rewarded with three call backs from an audience that will forever remember this once-in-a-lifetime experience. As we have heard him say to young guests on his radio show many times: "You nailed it!"

Donivan Johnson, who lives in Metaline Falls, Wash., is a composer, lecturer and music instructor for the Selkirk School District.

All content © 2013 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.

Lesser-known works open Northwest Bach Festival

Donivan Johnson / Correspondent

March 5, 2013

The 35th Annual Northwest Bach Festival Orchestra and Choir, under the leadership of artistic director Gunther Schuller, opened this year's festival Saturday with two relatively unknown but beautiful works: Cantata 157 by Johann Sebastian Bach and Mass in C by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Joining Schuller and the ensembles at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist were: Janet Brown, soprano; Thea Lobo, alto; Rockland Osgood, tenor; and Donald Wilkinson, baritone.

Bach's Cantata 157 ("I cannot release You until You bless me") was composed in 1726 shortly after the composer arrived in Leipzig, Germany. Schuller remarked that this work "is quite unusual in certain respects and most unusual of all of Bach's cantatas."

In the opening duet for tenor and baritone the seamless, exquisite musical tapestry woven by Bruce Bodden, flute, Keith Thomas, oboe, Nicholas Carper, viola, and the two vocalists was an aural wonder.

The tenor and baritone solos, which are, in Schuller's words, "tortuously difficult" were performed with flawless diction, musical intelligence and deep feeling. The concluding, brief chorale ("I will not let go of my Jesus") was lovingly sung by the Bach Festival Choir. The traditional continuo accompaniment part, especially John Bodinger, harpsichord, was also a flawless performance.

Beethoven wrote his Mass in C for the Esterhazy family in 1807. Upon its first performance, Count Esterhazy's remarks about Beethoven's unorthodox setting of the Mass caused the temperamental composer to storm off.

Schuller said he discovered the Mass in 1970 during the Beethoven bicentennial and called it "one of the most beautiful, gentle and lyrical of Beethoven's works."

He also said that "70 percent is soft, long stretches of lyrical music."

The traditional Latin text is cast in four movements with numerous subdivisions. As with the Bach cantata, the seemingly effortless performances by orchestra, choir and the four vocal soloists were sublimely rendered.

The "Amen" that concludes the Credo was beautifully expressed by the vocal soloists with choir joining.

I really also should mention the superb diction, phrasing and choral sound that the Bach Festival Choir, trained by Darnelle Preston, achieved throughout the entire work.

Schuller's sure directing and feeling for this music allowed all the performers and those in the audience to experience Beethoven's music as Schuller himself did in 1970.

One highlight of this year's Bach Festival was the listing in the program of all the works performed, the composers and major guest artists since 1993, when Schuller began his tenure as artistic director.

These lists are a veritable who's who in world-class Bach performances. Saturday night's concert proved once again how fortunate we are to have this yearly festival.

Donivan Johnson, who lives in Metaline Falls, Wash., is a composer, lecturer and music instructor for the Selkirk School District.

All content © 2013 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.