Bach Fest’s “Italian Symphony”

By Scott MacClelland

On Friday night Paul Goodwin amused the Sunset Center audience with something akin to comedic standup between performances by the Carmel Bach Festival orchestra of JS Bach, Corelli, Rossini and the Mendelssohn symphony of the program’s theme title. He scored several laughs-out-loud with his commentaries while the stage was being reset. The man is a born entertainer. Watch out David Gordon; you could find yourself in a popularity contest.

Goodwin commented on the opening Bach motet, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, after the fact. The most popular of the unaccompanied choral motets, it seems Bach wrote an orchestral score that doubled the voices, and performed it that way on various occasions. But Goodwin allowed that he was unaware of it being done with instruments only. Yet why not? Bach had an uncanny ability to write music that is eminently interchangeable. (I would love to hear, and comment on, a 4-part vocalise version of the great chaconne from the D Minor violin Partita.) Meanwhile, I hope Goodwin keeps this version in his Bach Festival repertoire.

Arcangelo_Corelli_2During those same remarks he then turned to Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in C Minor from the Opus 6 set. Until now, I had only known the work in its definitive string version with continuo harpsichord. But I did know that Corelli (pictured) played his works in open-air palazzo piazzi with huge orchestras. That was Goodwin’s rationale for adding winds, per Corelli himself, to the band, including two theorbos (six-foot archlutes) that he said, “make a hell of a sound.”

By now, it was plain that Goodwin was committed to bright, brisk tempos that kept the evening percolating. He ended the first half with the overture to Rossini’s Semiramide. While the opera was inspired by the Voltaire tragedy Semiramis—the Babylonian wife of King Ninus (Nimrod)—the overture, at 12 minutes about as long as the William Tell overture, contains some of Rossini’s most LOL bits. The performance literally drew cheers from the house.

For the Mendelssohn symphony, Goodwin explained the unusual stage arrangement in detail. He said it was a setup the composer used for orchestral concerts at the Gewandhaus concert hall in the city of Leipzig (where in the late 1820s Mendelssohn launched the ultimate resurrection of JS Bach.) It put the first violins to the right, their backs to the audience, and the seconds to the left. The violas stood behind the first violins. The winds were deployed behind the seconds with the clarinets centered, just before the timpani, and the trumpets behind the violas. The antiphonal effect was startling and, to my ears, extremely successful; inner voices, often buried, took and held their own. The performance was like spring itself, bright, breezy, fresh. The walking-bass cellos of the second movment, Andante con moto, followed a steady youthful gait. The final Salterello went as fast I have ever heard it but, under Goodwin’s wise insight, all the notes could be heard.