Carmel Bach Festival

By Scott MacClelland

THE POPULAR Wachet auf cantata by JS Bach, not heard at the Carmel Bach Festival for many years, took the prize at Saturday’s 78th season opener. Conductor Paul GoodwiPeter_Harvey_1n favored transparent textures and a light touch to which his Chorale and orchestra responded in kind. The opening “Sleepers awake” chorale fantasia scored in both categories, with détaché phrasing. The highly syncopated choral writing came through with crystalline concision. The two love duets, for soprano (Dominique Labelle) and baritone (Peter Harvey, pictured) included obbligato solos, the first for violin (Peter Hanson) and the second for oboe (Gonzalo Ruiz.) Aaron Sheehan provided the single brief tenor recitative after the opening movement.

The chorale reappeared in the fourth movement sung by the chorus tenors in a spare texture against an independent melody on the strings. How they fit together is both magical and memorable, two tunes you can take home in your head. The chorale returns once more in the final ‘straight’ version which Bach’s congregation could then join in singing. The chorale melody is what gives this cantata its substantive depth. Bach’s decorations make it sparkle.

Haydn’s Harmoniemesse (Wind Band Mass) is pretty light stuff, the sixth and last (1802) of the late mass settings commissioned by Prince Paul Anton Esterházy to celebrate the name-day of his princess-wife Marie Hermenegild. By this time the masses had become quite formulaic; it’s as though he painted the whole with a broad brush then went back to insert clever and sometimes witty details that would only become obvious on hearing (or even reading) the score two or three times. Beefing up the orchestra with a larger complement of winds doesn’t really give the piece any additional gravitas. At the time, Haydn, then 70, complained that the effort had winded him (so to speak.) For the performance, the festival Chorale was joined by the Chorus, Youth Chorus and additional soloists, mezzo-soprano Kathleen Flynn and tenor Thomas Cooley. At 38 minutes, Goodwin delivered a performance of clean, clear, efficient momentum. Like the program opener, Handel’s Royal Fireworks suite, the Haydn used valveless trumpets and horns.

It was those instruments that attracted the most attention in the Handel, a French suite in form and style, the three natural horn players standing in their moments, and the three trumpeters claiming the same a bit later. Two of the movements used only woodwinds: three oboes and two bassoons. Kettledrums were employed in both the Handel and the Haydn. As well known as the Handel suite is—not least thanks to classical radio—I can’t bring to mind when it was last played live in Carmel.
This first Main Concert set a festive tone before a sold-out Sunset Center audience. The program will be repeated this coming Saturday.

Allen Whear’s program note for the Sunday performance of JS Bach’s St John Passion leaves more questions than answers. He’s right about one thing: the 1725 version changes the character of the passion oratorio as we have long known it. Paul Goodwin conducted the familiar 1724 version of the work in his first season in Carmel, an unforgettably dramatic semi-staged production high on theatrics and intensity. This time out, it was restored to its more formal presentation but with so many changes (interpolations) as to challenge the audience with a St John Passion we’ve never heard before in Carmel. And a good thing too. Goodwin and his artistic deputies have made it clear that complacency will not do, that the tried is not reliably the only true. What happened in his first season was no guarantor of this one except in the quality of production.

This St John opens with the chorus that closes Part 1 of the St Matthew Passion. The gospel narrative, with Thomas Cooley as evangelist, and the various character parts remained a constant of course: Jesus (Dashon Burton), Pilate (David Newman), Peter (Tim Krol) and the small bit parts sung by Molly Quinn, Stephen Sands and Tim Shantz. The surprises came in the arias and choruses. In the closing moments of Part 1, a bravura bass aria answered by the women of the Chorale, “Himmel reisse, Welt erbebe” (Open heaven, quake earth) was a complete surprise to me, and so memorable as to make me wonder if it had ever appeared in any other context. The following tenor aria, “Ach, mein Sinn,” was exchanged for another, also for tenor: “Zerschmettert mich, ihr Felsen” (Shatter me with rocks.)

In Part 2, the bass and tenor arias, “Betrachte, meine Seele” and “Erwäge” were replaced by another tenor aria, “Ach windet euch nicht so, geplagte Seelen” (Oh winding to you not in such a way, afflicted souls.) After the final chorus, “Ruht wohl,” (Rest well) there appeared the chorale fantasia “Christe, du Lamm Gottes” (Christ, you lamb of God) from the cantata Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn BWV 23.

The arias were sung by soprano Dominique Labelle, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Aaron Sheehan and baritone Peter Harvey. Though overall less exciting than Goodwin’s production of the 1724 version, the performance was satisfying and, for all its interpolations, a welcome surprise. It also proved to be considerably shorter than the earlier version by at least 15 minutes. Goodwin kept the pace in motion and only slowed purposefully for a moment of reflection at the death of Jesus. Archlute0001

For those of us who don’t get out of town enough, this version is actually quite well-known from productions in large urban centers, including the San Francisco Bay area, and has been recorded many times. Daniel Swenberg, festival lutenist, underscored the ongoing bass lines. (Illustration, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from left, theorbo, archlute and chitaronne, the latter two from the 17th century.) William Skeen’s viola da gamba spookily accompanied Taylor in the “A” sections of the alto aria, “Es is vollbracht” (It is finished,) surrounding the fiery “B” section “Now Judah’s champion mounts on high.”