2015 Festival Reviews


Northwest Bach Festival’s cathedral concert caps dazzling event

Larry Lapidus / Correspondent

March 10, 2015

After igniting bursts of surprise and delight in diverse venues for two weeks throughout Spokane, Zuill Bailey, artistic director of the Northwest Bach Festival, chose to celebrate the festival’s conclusion with a gala concert on Sunday afternoon at St. John’s Cathedral.

The concert showcased three of the solo artists who provided star power this year: Bailey himself, one of the world’s greatest cellists, violinist Soovin Kim and pianist Awadagin Pratt. Kim was fresh from three performances of works by J.S. Bach for solo violin over three days, and at three different venues: Barrister Winery, Nectar Tasting Room and Churchill’s Steak House. Pratt also performed to a full house at Barrister Winery on Saturday night in an exhilarating recital of music for solo piano by Bach (arranged by Ferruccio Busoni), Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt.

The three collaborated with conductor Piotr Gajewski, making his Spokane debut, in a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Concerto in C major for Violin, Cello and Piano, Op. 56, known as the Triple Concerto. Gajewski’s appearance was notable not only for the outstanding musicianship he demonstrated, but also because Bailey is hoping to see him become a vital part in future festivals.

We had the pleasure of hearing Gajewski conduct an elite orchestra, drawn from the ranks of the Spokane Symphony and featuring many of its principal players, in two great works: Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, a masterpiece of the Baroque era, and Wolfgang Mozart’s brilliant Symphony No. 35 in D major, K. 385 – the Haffner Symphony – which epitomizes all that we admire in the classical era.

Both the Bach suite and the Mozart symphony flowed, as Mozart liked to put it, “like oil” – clear, smooth and natural. This is not to ignore the many difficulties these works present, such as the high-flying gymnastics Bach requires of the trumpets, brought off with thrilling beauty and agility by Spokane Symphony principal Larry Jess and associate principal Chris Cook.

The Triple Concerto was perfectly suited to both closing the program and celebrating the spirit of the Northwest Bach Festival. In all of Beethoven’s other six concertos, five for piano and one for violin, a solo instrument is pitted against the orchestra in a contest of wit, invention and virtuosity. In the Triple, however, this sort of purposeful conflict is replaced by amiable collaboration among the three soloists, to whom Beethoven is careful to allot equal importance, while the orchestra assumes a supportive role.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that in Beethoven’s day the cello was seldom used as a solo instrument, the composer gives that instrument special prominence in the Triple, allowing it the initial statement of important themes and assigning it the concerto’s most beautiful passages. Thus, Bailey’s status in the festival as first among equals was echoed in this performance, in which the eloquence of his playing, as well as his careful attention to his colleagues, were in evidence.

All content © 2015 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.


Catalyst Quartet a treat for Bach lovers

Larry Lapidus / Correspondent

March 4, 2015

The Northwest Bach Festival, newly invigorated and reconfigured by its dynamic artistic director, Zuill Bailey, is to be thanked for giving Spokane a chance to hear the Catalyst Quartet in a series of concerts that concluded Sunday afternoon at St. John’s Cathedral.

The centerpiece of the afternoon’s Bach/Gould Project concert was an arrangement by the quartet (Karla Donehew-Perez and Jessie Montgomery, violins, Paul Larais, viola, and Karlos Rodriguez, cello) of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

The immensely difficult task of creating an effective transcription for strings of Bach’s famous keyboard work was inspired by the late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, whose status as one of the most important musicians of the 20th century began with the 1956 release of his recording of the Goldberg Variations.

Their admiration for Gould led the quartet to seek out the music to his only published composition, the String Quartet Op. 1, which formed the second work on Sunday’s program.

Members of the large audience began arriving early, while the quartet was still warming up, so as to assure themselves of a good seat – though, thanks to its superb acoustics, there is not a bad seat in the church. Chatting among themselves, audience members gradually became aware that all the members of the quartet had stopped playing except for the cellist, who had started playing something by Bach, and playing it very well.

When they finally turned their eyes to the stage, they saw that the player was Bailey, who had launched into a surprise “Flash Bach” performance of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. Since it was not part of the formal program, I will say little about it here, other than to remark that if the world of music holds any pleasure greater than hearing Zuill Bailey play Bach, I have yet to find it.

The playing of the Catalyst Quartet was also a continual source of pleasure. Careful to keep within the bounds of string playing appropriate to 18th-century music, they nonetheless succeeded in revealing the wealth of wit and pathos that lies in nearly every measure of Bach’s great work. All four players employed light pressure on the string and used vibrato as Bach would have expected: as an occasional ornament, rather than a constant means of tone production. The result was a sweet, airy sound, but one capable of many shades of expression.

In the Gould String Quartet, the group’s sound darkened considerably, in keeping with the stylistic language of the work. Early in his career, Gould was deeply involved in the music of the Second Viennese School of composers – Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, among others. These are the influences most noticeable in his String Quartet, and account for its dominant tone of brooding, super-heated emotion. Catalyst responded by digging into their strings more deeply and producing tone colors that would have been out of place in the Bach.

The result for this listener, who knew the piece only through a tense, wiry recording of it made under Gould’s supervision in 1960, was to enhance its stature substantially, and to create a desire to know it better.

The question of evaluating the transcription of the Goldberg Variations is a thorny one. Suffice it to say there are both considerable benefits and serious losses in transposing material intended for one person to play on the harpsichord to four people playing string instruments. The chief benefit is in a vastly increased range of expression. The chief detriment is in making it more difficult to perceive the integrity of the piece’s structure, which is its greatest glory.

All content © 2015 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.


Flash-Bach worth checking out

Posted by Carolyn

March 4, 2015

In his review in today’s paper of the Catalyst String Quartet Bach Festival performance at St. John’s Cathedral on Sunday afternoon, Spokesman-Review classical music critic Larry Lapidus wrote this: “that if the world of music holds any pleasure greater than hearing Zuill Bailey play Bach, I have yet to find it.”

Those who love classical music, or those whose interest in it is only passing, have had several chances in recent days to hear what Lapidus is talking about. Bailey has been popping up around town during the noon hour, playing whichever of the six J.S. Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello strikes his fancy.

I’ve caught two of the four held so far – the first one, held in the atrium at River Park Square, and yesterday’s, held in the city council chambers in Spokane City Hall. (Certainly a room that could use all the harmony it can get.) Each session has started with an introduction – details about Bach, about the festival, and about Bailey’s cello, a 1693 instrument built as a church bass by the Italian Matteo Gofriller. After the music plays, there’s a pop quiz for the chance to win concert tickets, and an opportunity for questions.

These free “Flash-Bach” concerts are a perfect excuse to spend a little time in the lunch hour enjoying some culture. It’s these kind of artistic events that make a city feel more alive, more vibrant. So if you’re out and about downtown today, head over to the Bank of America building at at noon today. Bailey will be in the lobby, ready to wow you with some Bach.

Can’t make it today? What about Thursday? Bailey will set up in the Kress Gallery in River Park Square (that’s up on the third floor, behind the food court) for a “Bach’s Lunch” concert, also at noon. Brown-bag it from home, or grab something in the mall and enjoy lunch with a beautiful – and free – soundtrack.

The final Flash-Bach concert will be on Friday, at a location yet to be publicly announced (though sources say it will be in the Valley). Check the festival’s Facebook page on Friday morning for details, or visit www.nwbachfest.com for information on the remaining Twilight Tour concerts featuring violinist Soovin Kim, and the two remaining Classics Concerts on Saturday and Sunday night.

As Bailey ends the second year in his role as the Northwest Bach Festival’s artistic director, it’s been impossible not to notice how revitalized the event is. And that’s a good thing – not just for fans of classical music, but for Spokane as a whole.

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Having flash-Bachs: Zuill Bailey thrills unsuspecting fans in River Park Square

by Courtney Brewer

February 25, 2015

“He’s world class,” beamed onlooker Seiko Miki after Zuill Bailey’s Flash-Bach performance in River Park Square. “Though I prefer the more grand scale venues, it’s so great that he’s bringing this talent to the public like this. It’s incredible what he is doing here in little old Spokane.”

The afterglow was undeniable. Though the urban setting of a mall atrium seemed a stark contrast to elegant concert halls, Bailey seemed quite at home simply to be in the presence of listeners. From the front door to the escalators, Bailey’s music stopped people in their tracks. Closed eyes and soft smiles covered the faces of listeners young and old as the atrium filled with the soothing sounds of Bailey’s museum-worthy cello that seemed to be an extension of himself. As the crowd began to disperse after today’s free performance, it was as if time had stood still for those serene 30 minutes.

Bailey is the suave artistic director for the Northwest Bach Festival and is back with even more concerts than last year. Take a look at Laura Johnson’s article on this year’s Northwest Bach Festival here.

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