80th Bach Festival

By Scott MacClelland

THE 80TH CARMEL BACH FESTIVAL opened with a muted orchestral fanfare and a mostly subdued tone on Saturday evening in the Sunset Center auditorium. Despite the trumpets and drums that signal JS Bach’s festive intent, the Cantata BWV 11 (1734-35) “Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen” failed to ignite, perhaps due to its overall pastoral character, or its lower tuning of A-415 hertz that mitigates against ears familiar with the more brilliant A-440, or its intimate Baroque instruments. That outcome was even harder to square since the crack Chorale was doubled by the locally-assembled Festival Chorus.

As if in cahoots, the program notes by Allen Whear began by arguing that the BWV 11 qualified as an oratorio—the so-called “Ascension”—that describes Christ’s ascent into Mhairiheaven. Cantata or oratorio, who in the Carmel Bach Festival audience cares? And at under 30 minutes, this one also lacks the gravitas of the composer’s dramatic masterpieces. The biggest problem with program notes everywhere begins with the annotator’s assumption about his/her readers, in this case off the mark. (Whear’s notes here read as if he’s applying for an academic position at some university or music school.)

The cantata/oratorio included Festival-veteran solo tenor Thomas Cooley, soprano Mhairi Lawson (pictured) and bass-baritone Dashon Burton, both with a previous solo season—Burton has also sung in the Chorale—and introduced mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle.CORRECTION: Mindy Ella Chu was a last-minute replacement for Bragle.

The ensuing Concerto Grosso by Philip Glass—like the Festival itself now turned 80—required the orchestra, consisting of four winds, five brass and strings, to retune to A-440. From the stage, conductor Paul Goodwin said he “loves” the piece. In it, Glass takes an unusual turn with the old Baroque form that both satisfies the formal expectations and piles on a great range of variety given its propulsive rhythms and repetitive ‘cells.’ You’ll find similarities with Beethoven—think the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. But in Glass that variety, mostly in terms of instrumental combinations, is more subtle and, therefore, more demanding of the listener. Moreover, Glass’ rhythms are internally more syncopated, further raising the stakes. Two animated dance-like movements sandwiched a more relaxed “Southern California” mood in the 20-minute performance.

Best in show, and retuned back to A-415, was Henry Purcell’s “Come Ye Sons of Art,” a sixth and last birthday ode composed in 1694 for the popular Queen Mary—wife of King William of Orange—who died shortly after at age 32. (Purcell himself died in 1695 at age 36.) In significant ways, Purcell demarked the rise of the “High Baroque,” a consolidation of French and Italian developments, mostly in the realm of instrumental music—or rather how to convey deeply felt emotion through instruments. (The great operas of Monteverdi, Cavalli and Lully had led the way for the vocal forms.) But it’s the riotously individual personality of Purcell that pivoted all that came before into a newly expressive channel, not unlike the neck of an hourglass. A flood of greatness ensued: Corelli, Vivaldi, JS Bach, Handel, D Scarlatti.

All of this could be found in this splendid cantata, including all manner of wit and tweak. Lasting as long as the Bach, it beguiled and charmed as the text itself called out various instrumental cameos. Mezzo Bagle was here joined by Patricia Thompson in a marvelously blended duet. On the basis of this work, the unprecedented operatic masterpiece Dido and Aeneas, the riotously Fairy Queen and other Shakespeare musical adaptations and his other theater music, Purcell was far freer to self-indulge in a world of secular rather than sacred arts. And so much the better. The Bach Festival should carve a much larger hole for him to fill.

Likewise Handel, whose “Worthy is the Lamb…Amen” from Messiah, the Chorus now rejoining the Chorale, put paid to this salutary start to the Festival’s 80th—until the encore, “Hallelujah,” added its inevitable exclamation point.

MY SEARCH FOR BACH at his festival next took me to All Saints Church on Monday afternoon. Soprano Mhairi Lawson, a gem of a find who debuted in Carmel at last year’s Festival, opened a Bach cantata program—one cantata and cantata arias—with a small instrumental ensemble. Notwithstanding a relative paucity of Bach this summer, the large turnout made clear how strong remains an appetite for his music, especially among longtime local music lovers.

Lawson began the concert with BWV 199, “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut,” dating from 1714 and with a text by Georg Christian Lehms. Not yet 30, Bach painted in vivid and haunting music the passage from the sinner’s abject humility before God to rising hope and ultimate joy in salvation. (You find this same dramatic instinct in Mozart, Schubert, Brahms and Mahler, and countless other masters.) So compelling was this performance, with its oboe and solo viola obbligatos, and later rising instrumental figures, that the following arias and duets, with tenor Thomas Dooley, could not displace its impact from memory. However, the arias and duets, drawn from five sacred cantatas, and, as an encore, from the secular “Hunting” cantata, provided enchanting glimpses into a casket of overlooked treasure. Dooley ran into some road bumps with the coloratura melismas in his opening aria from BWV 5, “Ergiesse dich reichlich du Göttliche Quelle,” but warmed up nicely after that.

Lawson and Dooley were more than ably supported by violinists Patricia Ahern and Marika Holmqvist, violist Karina Schmitz, cellist Margaret Jordan-Gay, oboist Gonzalo X Ruiz and Dongsok Shin at the chamber organ. Ahern and Schmitz delivered some formidable obbligato workouts.

While the Bach Festival continues with all kinds of other guys, I’m sticking with Bach. Marketing director Scott Seward told me in a phone call that in choosing Bach, Festival founders Denny and Watrous were “only” looking for a brand. Woe unto anyone who launches a festival with the name of Bach for its “brand.”