Carmel Bach Festival

By Scott MacClelland

MOST MEMORABLE of the opening night Main Concert of the 2016 Carmel Bach Festival was the program’s second half, consisting of the Magnificat setting by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst. First performed in 1749, the year before the death of his father, Emanuel Bach’s large-scale Magnificat straddles the Baroque and Classical eras, the recitatives and arias sounding more classical in style. Yet for all its sizzle and energy, until the extravagant fugal finale, “Sicut erat in principio” for chorus, the 40-minute work doesn’t offer any counterpoint to speak of. Or put another way, the finale seems earnestly to make compensation.

A show of hands, requested by conductor Paul Goodwin, made it plain that something like 99 percent of the audience had never heard the piece before. That samePeter Harvey number sounded great enthusiasm at its conclusion. Festival Chorale and Chorus participated in an exciting performance, along with the solo vocal quartet, Mhairi Lawson, Meg Bragle, Thomas Cooley and Peter Harvey (photo by Carole Latimer.) The small organ also tuned the orchestra.

American Eric Whitacre is extremely well-known in choral circles for his innovative, imaginative music. He created a ‘virtual choir’ of more than 2000 singers worldwide for a 2011 film for a TED talk, that, to date, has had more than three million visits. Still, Cloudburst, from 1991, was his introduction to most of the Festival audience on Saturday evening. The eight-minute performance, more about color and texture than melody and harmony, sets a poem in Spanish by the late Mexican Octavio Paz. Its text describes drought, then, with heightened anticipation and a percussion battery, explodes into a vivid cloudburst, complete with a thunder sheet and piano. The piece is really a choral tone poem, in which the unique vocal textures were then enhanced by hand bells, whispering, and, in the otherwise non-playing orchestra, finger-snapping. Bravos punctuated the audience response.

In the first half, music about drought and water was the Festival’s way of saying Happy 100th to host city Carmel-by-the-Sea. The program opened with Water Music by George Frideric Handel, the first suite and excerpts from the second and third—about 40 minutes worth—plus a projected slide show of photos and paintings of the Monterey coastal area taken from the Monterey Museum of Art collection. Not only were the images a complete mismatch to the baroque music, but for many a big distraction. And with legitimate cause. The images were gathered in groups in a lame attempt to denote the different dance groupings of the suites, and soon enough began to repeat. One group of images showed low-resolution, underwater black and white photos of fish schools in the ocean, over and over. To make matters worse, changes from one image to the next bore no rhythmic relationship to the rhythms of the music. Plainly, this visual component was not adequately thought out. Not even close.

The music itself, commissioned by King George I, very much pleased the monarch as, for the premiere in 1717, he rode in his barge, next to one that held the orchestra, on the tidal bore from Whitehall the short distance upstream to Chelsea. (After the tide turned, he and his entourage retraced their musical regatta.) Festive and rhythmically charged, the music flatters the musicians, with many solos, conspicuously for horns and trumpets, unvalved in this case with their occasional surprises. But Goodwin’s tempos, whether quick or slow, all tended toward moderato, giving the whole parade a sameness of character. Like the composer’s Royal Fireworks suite, this music also cries out for snap, crackle and pop.

SEBASTIAN BACH’S Mass in B minor, is, artistically, no conductor’s walk in the park if the whole is to become more than the sum of its parts. Since most of the mass ordinary praises the godhead and the Christ alternately and in continual permutations, there is scant drama on offer. Drama, therefore, must be inserted. Bach achieved this in a variety of ways, conspicuously orchestrations and dance rhythms. Still, to get past the sum of the parts a conductor needs to develop an overall vision of the piece.

This wasn’t entirely clear in Sunday’s matinee performance at Sunset Center. Goodwin’s forces burned brightest when trumpets and drum were added to Andrew Megill’s spectacular Chorale singers: “Gloria in excelsis Deo” and “Cum Sancto Spiritu” that frame the Gloria section, “Et resurrexit” and “Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum” from the Credo section (Symbolum Nicenum), “Sanctus” and “Osanna in excelsis.” These choruses were thrilling. I don’t think I have heard a more gripping “Et expecto,” presented here as a great edifice despite its brevity.

Framing the entire mass, the opening fugal “Kyrie eleison” and the concluding “Dona nobis pacem” didn’t match the grandeur of the great moments within. But, frankly, that also applies to other conductors’ work I have heard, both live and in recordings. I’m just glad that conducting this great work is not my job.

John Eliot Gardiner, in his book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, provides a deeply penetrating analysis of the B minor Mass. He makes a particular point about the dance suite that constitutes the second half of the Gloria section: “the Qui tollis as a sarabande, the Qui sedes as a moderately paced giga, the Quoniam as a stately but forward-thrusting polonaise, and finally the Cum sancto as a free-spirited corybantic dance.” (Bach called for a waldhorn in the “Quoniam” bass aria and, to my memory, the instrument used here was a first in a Festival production of the Mass.)

Here, soprano Clara Rottsolk joined the vocal quartet mentioned above during the first half of the performance. All these singers acquitted themselves beautifully, though the mezzo, Bragle, changed her sound (timbre) as she moved through the registers. The most authoritative of them was baritone Peter Harvey whose singing and personality reached farthest into the auditorium.

For this production, the organ tuned everyone down to concert A, 415 Hz, in line with baroque-era tuning. “Easier for the singers,” Megill told me.