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The Bachs in The Redwoods

August 21, 1999

Michael Collver

Ryan Brown

By Cynthia Albers

In an age of specialists, it is rare to find such a performer as Michael Collver who is master of both the vocal and instrumental arts Showcased with an ensemble of illustrious baroque players, Collver filled St. Philip's Church in Occidental with his brilliant tenor voice and trumpet-like cornetto last Saturday. This twilight concert was the second in a series being presented by the Redwoods Festival.

The program was about generations, in particular, generations of the Bach family. But straying from the norm, this was not another collection of works by the sons of Johann Sebastian. Instead, the ensemble focused on works by seventeenth-century Bach family elders and their contemporaries. It was a welcome step backward in time, allowing the listener to view the most famous Bach as child and nephew rather than Kapellmeister and father.

Cornettist-countertenor Collver and violinist-director Ryan Brown shared the solo spotlight. The subtle, almost relaxed virtuosity of both allowed for a careful weaving of instrumental lines and cleanly executed improvisatory flourishes. Italianate instrumental works by Weckmann and Löwe were tossed off with gentle assurance. Their playing was strikingly compatible, but I wished for more sound from the violin.

Worthy of mention are two pieces by Johann Christoph Bach: The Chaconne with overlaying text ("Meine Freundin ist mein"), and Lamento ("Ach dass ich Wassers genug hätte"). The text of "Meine Freundin" spoke anxiously of love sickness and drew energy from dramatic statements made by voice and violin. Accompanying forces of three violas and continuo provided a backdrop as sonorous as a church organ. Elegantly led by Katherine Kyme, the violas reacted much like a Greek chorus, responding with broad gestures to Collver's vocal interjections.

The Lamento was laden with a Wagneresque richness; the kind of writing that thrills the soul and reminds us that music exists because certain things cannot be described in words. In fact, the beauty of the piece was such that the performers chose to delete a work they had programmed to follow it.

The second half of the program was dedicated to works of J.S. Bach. The ensemble responded with gusto, implying that this was more familiar territory. Violists Lisa Grodin and Maria Caswell shone in dynamic fugal entrances at the close of Cantata 54. Ryan Brown performed the E Major Violin Concerto with acrobatic ease, balancing the violin lightly on his shoulder without the use of chin support. Brown's artistic agility brought a charming simplicity to the work.

Those who spend summer evenings outdoors will understand the subtleties of a concert held at twilight. This is the magical time of day when visual and aural awareness are heightened by the diminishing light. St. Philip's was described as "Carpenter Gothic" with its decorated wood paneling and high-arched ceilings, and it seemed to be the perfect venue for German Baroque music. Shuttered windows open to the night air allowed the audience to experience the natural progression of nightfall. But for all of its beauty, the church did not provide the acoustics necessary for a program of this kind. All of the instruments seemed muted, so that the result was a thin sound lacking resonance.

(Cynthia Albers is a violinist and teacher residing in rural Sonoma County. She performs with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, American Bach Soloists, and is a graduate of the Indiana University Early Music Institute.)

©1999 Cynthia Albers, all rights reserved