Carmel Bach Festival Main Concerts Monday & Wednesday

By Dana Abbott

IN ITS 82nd SEASON the Carmel Bach Festival under director Paul Goodwin has assembled a cadre of devoted professional musicians who return regularly for the two-week event. There are some patrons who grumble about the diverse programming of recent years, but there is little to disparage in the musicianship on display. 

Concertmaster Peter Hanson, a professional studio-quality violinist based in London, performs in orchestral works, in chamber groups and solo violin repertoire, this year including a Mozart evening. At the Bach Festival he regularly creates a concert of his own choosing. For the Monday Main concert he selected a diverse program entitled Psycho! a clever promotional ploy. The concert was rich with music from cinema, which dominated the second half, while the performance on July 15 opened with concert fare by Edvard Grieg and John Adams. Grieg’s well-known “Holberg” Suite displayed all its many charms with inventive, yet easy-to-follow development of its exquisite themes. Included is folk-like material from Grieg’s Norway with a violin and viola duet in the final movement. The concert could hardly have started off better with exciting, precise passage work and lush tone.  There is a Bach connection for the suite is Grieg’s tribute to Ludvig Holberg, a Norwegian contemporary of Bach who wrote essays, histories and plays. 

Next, Hanson introduced Shaker Loops with praise during a spoken introduction in which he clearly championed the Adams composition. Sensing this was new material for many, he compared it to an airplane journey with passengers viewing shifting clouds out the windows. He added two important comments, noting that when he proposed the piece for the concert, the marketing people in the Festival management “went white.” He further noted the airplane trip would likely encounter turbulence. 

From the early 1980s, Shaker Loops is a major work, similar to minimalist writing by Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The name Shaker derives from strings playing tremolo, bowing quickly between two pitches. There is also the suggestion of spiritual ecstasy sought by Shakers, a small religious sect in New England. The music consists of rhythmically energetic harmonies developed, spread and shared among shifting groups of strings. There is no tune. Rather the piece interconnects blocks of chords with forward motion and persistent dissonance. Yet the dissonance is neither random nor abrasive and the tone color “outside the windows” is interesting. Variety is found in portamentos (sliding pitches) and in eerie harmonics. Shaker Loops is, however, long. A few people left, apparently realizing that there would be no normal tonal resolution. Indeed, the final note was a low, sustained fundamental. Hanson conducted and the orchestra delivered a fine reading of this demanding piece. The audience reception was warm. 

The second half of the concert was a collection of brief pieces nearly all from cinema. Bernard Herrmann’s well-crafted Psycho score is entirely fitting for Hitchcock’s black and white horror film. It is rooted in minor tonality and dramatic when called for. 

Edward Elgar’s famous “Nimrod” variation from Enigma was played in a version for strings alone, programmed with the justification that is was used in the recent film, Dunkirk. But the arrangement and prosaic reading barely touched the majesty of the full score.

Stanley Myers, a British composer, wrote the music used in the Vietnam war film The Deer Hunter, which allowed Hanson a fine solo. He claims the Cavatina is the best thing about the film.

Howard Shore provided pleasant music from The Lord of the Rings films. Paul Goodwin—shoeless, Hobbit-like—made a brief guest appearance for a recorder solo.

John Williams’ main them from Schindler’s List, one of the finer movie scores of the evening, again dealt Hanson a handsome solo. This extract was finely polished with a harpist joining the strings. 

Hanson closed the program with “Air” from the Orchestral Suite No. 3 by Bach, noting it was a “Bach Festival” after all. Popularly known as the “Air on the G String,” the academic inclination of Festival musicians resulted in a somewhat rushed and astringent version of this gem in the Bach canon. On the modern instruments being used in this concert, the lovely score responds generously to a slower tempo and judicial vibrato, missing in this dry reading. 

The program pleased the audience. The warm applause brought forth an encore: an elegant rendering for strings and harp of Henry Mancini’s Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This encore finished the concert with what had opened it, lush string playing a lovely score.

 

By Scott MacClelland

EVER SINCE THE DAYS when Bruno Weil was music director of the Carmel Bach Festival the star has been Andrew Megill’s Festival Chorale. So it remains. “Christmas at the Mission,” heard Wednesday at the Carmel Basilica, contained two of the six cantatas by JS Bach collectively known as The Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, and seven Magnificat Antiphons of 1988 by Arvo Pärt. Megill used the Pärt to frame and separate the two Bach cantatas, No. 3 “The Third Day of Christmas” and 6 “Epiphany.”

While these cantatas contain many gems, they are not as memorable (or inspired?) as the Cantatas 1 “The First Day of Christmas” that celebrates the birth of the savior with joyous flamboyance, or 2 “The Second Day of Christmas” with its pastoral setting of the manger scene and its alto aria “Sleep, my Dearest, enjoy Thy rest,” or 4 “New Year’s Day” with its soprano aria and delightful echoes and its tenor aria that opens with a fugue in the form of a double violin concerto.

Both of these cantatas on the program open and close with festive pealing trumpets and thumping drums. There are other highlights peculiar to them as well. Cantata No. 3 paints the manger scene at the time of the visiting shepherds and three Magi. The chorale “This has He done for all of us” used a solo quartet of voices instead of the full chorus. The soprano and bass duet “Lord, your compassion, your mercy” restores the pastoral woodwinds and 3/4 time. The alto aria “Enclose, my heart” is introduced and accompanied by a solo violin obbligato. The chorale “Meanwhile be joyful” was supported by boldly robust strings.

Cantata 6 begins with a fugal chorus loaded with trills. The soprano aria “Just a wave of your hand” includes generous passages for the orchestra. It is left to the following tenor recitative to ‘narrate’ the arrival of the Magi and the gifts they bring. A subsequent tenor recitative, “Go, then,” is accompanied by oboes and organ. The dramatic final recitative uses the solo vocal quartet. The concluding chorale breaks the lines apart from each other and spreads them broadly while the orchestra fills in between phrases and keeps the festive character dancing along.

I think putting these two cantatas together undermined the impact of each. Further, they would have benefited and been enhanced by exaggerating the contrast of tempos between the movements, the quick section brisker, the slower ones broader. The various solo voices were drawn from the chorus itself.

The success of the Pärt antiphons, splendid pieces but often told in the most subtle of dissonant harmonies, would have gained in a smaller, more intimate venue, like All Saints Church in Carmel.   

Meanwhile, the audience enjoyed, probably for the first time, the cushioned and upholstered pews, after decades of enduring their hardwood punishment.