Carmel Bach Festival

By Scott MacClelland

GoodwinAs demonstrated by his staged production of JS Bach’s Saint John Passion in his inaugural season and his new Saint Matthew Passion Paul Goodwin (left) has erased any memory of his glib and facile predecessor, Bruno Weil. Goodwin has shown what Weil never did: an overall vision of the dramatic continuity and deep personal expression of these profound works, which are arguably the greatest artistic ‘selling points’ for Protestant Christianity outside of blind tradition and the snake oil evangelists who pop up on TV in their ‘mega churches’ every Sunday morning.

Weil was a technical miniaturist, penny wise and pound foolish, redeemed ultimately by the talent that surrounded him. Perhaps most significant in that cohort was A14Associate_Conductor_Director_of_Chorale_and_Chorusndrew Megill (right), the associate conductor and chorus master who has continued to raise the bar under Goodwin’s artistic leadership.

In Sunday’s performance, Goodwin displayed a dynamic variety of pace, tempi and texture, turning the work’s drama into high musical theater. As he divided the chorus into two antiphonal units he did likewise with the orchestra, using them alternately as the work unfolded and together in the big moments. He adapted his conducting style to the character of text and music from crisp articulation in the dramatic moments to smoothly phrased legato in the emotionally charged expressive sections. Anyone who knows and loves this masterpiece—and there were some in the audience who know it as the only ‘religion’ of real value—came away moved and ‘spiritually’ uplifted.

The festival Chorale declaimed fiercely as the mob. Its ‘thunder and lightening’ scene in Part 1 crackled thrillingly like the storm it described. Its survey of the several versions of the chorale “O sacred head” brought up as many layers and textures of emotion as of the music itself. (The nine-member youth chorus joined the Chorale in the opening and closing choruses of Part 1.)

Rufus Müller sang the entire St. Matthew gospel narrative from memory, often with a theatrical flair. Dashon Burton, seated directly in front of Goodwin, brought to life the character of Jesus. (He delivered his last words—“Eli eli lama sabachthani?”—from the balcony.) The arias (commentaries) that react to events were sung with excellent feeling by the vocal quartet of Dominique Labelle, Robin Blaze, Aaron Sheehan and Peter Harvey. Countertenor Blaze showed off an amazing range of vibrato whose speed he somehow could increase or slow down for greater expression. Chorale members took the other characters, Avery Griffin (Peter), Paul Speiser (Judas), Jeffrey Fields (Caiaphas), Tim Krol (Pilate) among them.

The orchestras, facing each other, winds in front and strings behind, responded sensitively to Goodwin’s every gesture. The obbligato instruments took their solos and duos expressively. Bill Skeen‘s viola da gamba made a vivid timbral impression.

David Gordon’s revamped supertitles were concise and in modern parlance.

Last Thursday afternoon Goodwin engaged Caroline Shaw in conversation as a way to personally introduce the young Pulitzer-winning composer and learn more about her festival commission, a setting of the “Nunc dimitus,” to be interpolated into JS Bach’s Magnificat. As much a singer and violinist as composer, she guardedly admitted to being influenced by Brahms, Arvo Pärt and some film music. For the commission, she used an English translation of the text, emphasizing the line “For my eyes have seen your salvation.” She also called on the 19th century American shape note tradition which facilitated amateur choirs in finding the right notes without a key signature on the staff. Goodwin made clear that he considers himself a maverick, always on the lookout for some different or new way to present old and/or familiar music. As for inserting a new piece into the Magnificat, he said Bach and his fellow composers were always doing the same thing with their music.

The Magnificat opened the festival Saturday night and included a slew of Christmas interpolations, meaning the Chorale and festival Chorus sang in three languages, Latin, German and English. Shaw’s piece, lasting about six minutes, had a definite American inflection that bore some resemblance to her Pulitzer winning Partita, which was written for her vocal ensemble, Roomful of Teeth.

The program also celebrated the 300th anniversary of CPE Bach with his early Classical-style Symphony No. 1 in D, a highly virtuosic (for the violins anyway) and fairly zany three movements of about nine minutes duration. Last was Vivaldi’s Gloria, RV589, which was even more riotously entertaining than usual, thanks to the dancing bounce Goodwin put it to. His conducting here was often hyper-articulate with snappy results. By contrast, the Magnificat sounded more sober, more Lutheran if you will. The quartet of solo voices heard in the Passion were joined by soprano Clara Rottsolk. They and the other musical forces set a high standard for this 77th Carmel Bach Festival.

These two programs will be repeated this Saturday and Sunday.

Photos by rr jones