By Scott MacClelland
Paul Goodwin wasted no time implementing his “French Connection” theme for the 76th Carmel Bach Festival, Saturday night at Sunset Center. The opening chorus of JS Bach’s cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 20) injects the recurring chorale melody into a French overture, replete with the dotted rhythms and fugal episodes commonly associated with Lully, Purcell, Handel and Rameau. Never before performed in Carmel, the richly colored 25-minute work displayed as rich a palette as one finds anywhere in the Bach playbook. Festival Chorale (imported) and Chorus (local) began and ended the text which exhorts mankind to put away its vanities or face eternity in hell. The combined choral forces also ended Part 1 with another harmonization of the chorale melody. The ‘eternity in hell’ theme was reiterated by fine vocal soloists, the piping countertenor Daniel Taylor, theatrical tenor Thomas Cooley and coolly urgent baritone Peter Harvey, with different instrumental groupings in obbligato support. Andrew Arthur provided continuo at the organ. Robert Farley played a virtuosic display on valveless trumpet as obbligato to Cooley’s Wacht auf aria, and also joined the full ensemble on the curved cornett, a renaissance predecessor to the modern trumpet. (See illustration.)
Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave’s program note, and Goodwin’s remarks from the stage, made it easy to follow her short Largo in Homage to B.A.C.H. for strings, a festival commission. In just seven minutes, the piece emerged from the dark recesses of the double bass to the celestial heights of the violins. But instead of fashioning a melody from the letters of Bach’s name—B-flat, A, C, B-natural— as Bach himself and many others have, she chose to build four connected sections on the chords associated with those tones. She also blurred their strong tonalities by using the octotonic scale, which alternates between whole steps and half steps, creating a harmonic “mist.”
One of Handel’s “due cori” (two choirs) concertos ensued, pitting two wind bands, each consisting of paired horns, paired oboes and a bassoon in antiphonal combat. All the movements were recast by the composer of bits from his operas and oratorios, namely Esther, Messiah, Birthday Ode for Queen Ann and Occasional Oratorio. This was witty jousting, sometimes with the opposite oboes dueling on speed. The four natural (valveless) horns exhibited their share of clammed notes, prompting one audience member to wonder, tongue in cheek, “Can’t the festival afford to buy better instruments?”
The program closed with a beautiful realization of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. Here, Andrew Megill’s combined chorus was transparent, as befits the French ethos, crisply articulate and acutely response to Goodwin’s dynamic contrasts. The full orchestra gave weight as well as color—the original version has no woodwinds or violins, though when it is performed a solo violin is called on to weave its line through the Sanctus—to a highly sensual effect. Soprano Dominique Labelle graced the fragile Pie Jesu with clarity and sparkle—even at pianissimo—and gorgeous tone. Lyric baritone Harvey sang with elegance and dignity. As with the Bach, Andrew Arthur supported the performance from the organ.