July 29, 2008
The best thing about the Carmel Bach Festival, besides that it's in Carmel, is that, as Calvin used to say to Hobbes, "The days are just packed." Except that, unlike Calvin's day, one at the festival really is packed. In 11 hours in town last Thursday, I attended two concerts, a preconcert lecture, a Q & A session, and a vocal master class, leaving time for a two-hour dinner break. Walking briskly between venues four or five blocks apart is good exercise. And all together this makes a day trip (or an overnight one) to Carmel for the festival really worth the investment in time, even if you're driving from some distance away.
The main event was the evening concert in the Sunset Theater. Andrew Arthur, at the harpsichord, directed members of the Festival Orchestra in all six of the assorted concertos that Johann Sebastian Bach sent to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721. The cheerfulness and variety of these works make for a more satisfying program than would, say, six comparable works by Corelli. Even with imperfections in performance, it was a rich and successful concert.
The interpretation was a mix of modern and period styles. Tempos were generally fast, particularly in the slow movements, but not hurried. With a few inevitable exceptions, the instruments were modern — flutes were used rather than recorders, and the French horns had valves, for instance — but some of the string players held their bows in Baroque style, and there was only one player per part.
This sounded fine for the so-called orchestral concertos, which here became the chamber music gems that Bach probably intended them to be. The Third Concerto's responses and byplays manifested perfect balance and clarity, and the first movement of the Sixth — with violists Karina Fox and Sarah Darling intricately interweaving melodies while the other players tirelessly chugged out a steady rhythm — was a truly enchanting extended moment.
But in the other concertos, where a group of soloists is set against the ripieno, as the tutti ensemble is called, problems of balance arose, because the ripieno was just not large or strong enough to stand up to the solo concertino group. This was a particular problem in the First Concerto, which has seven soloists but in this performance had only six players in the ripieno, and in the Fifth, which is dominated by the solo harpsichord. The soloists displayed themselves, but the reply from the ensemble was underpowered in comparison.
Winds Come Through
The solo playing was of variable quality. The violins had the hardest time of it. Cristina Zacharias in the Second and Fifth Concertos had difficulty staying in tune, and Edwin Huizinga, who appeared to be playing the correct small-size violino piccolo in the First Concerto, had a terrible time controlling it. But Huizinga made up for this with a fine performance on a regular violin in the Fourth Concerto, producing expressive, Vivaldi-like shudders in the finale's intricate passagework.
The winds generally did much better. Wolfgang Basch, who ran offstage to fetch his eyeglasses just before embarking on the Second Concerto, was fairly fluent in its immensely difficult high clarino trumpet part. Stephanie McNab was more forward and relaxed as flute soloist in the Fifth Concerto than Dawn Loree Walker was in the equivalent part in the Second, but the two of them made a fine duet in the two flute parts of the Fourth.
The real gem of wind playing came in the Trio sections, unadulterated by strings or continuo, of the closing movement of the First Concerto. Hornists Christopher Cooper and Loren Tayerle gave strong, impeccable sound throughout the concerto, and their pairing with the three bold oboists (Roger Cole, Neil Tatman, and Ellen Sherman) in the second Trio was an aural delight to match the violists in the Sixth Concerto. The oboists did equally well when accompanied by Britt Hebert's bassoon in the first Trio. From these oboes came more, and better-chosen, decoration and inflection than from anywhere else in the ensemble, and Tatman matched this as oboe soloist in the Second Concerto.
Throughout the concert, ensemble was excellent, to which due credit should be given to Andrew Arthur's unobtrusive direction from the keyboard. For most of the concert his harpsichord could barely be heard as a separate instrument, though the total sound would have been quite different without it. For the Fifth Concerto, where the harpsichord is one of the soloists, the instrument was moved so that the player sat facing across the audience instead of away from it, and the lid was raised. Even here its tone was gentle, and as Arthur whipped his way through the first movement's long cadenza, the music emerged like the buzz of little bees, a wonderfully fluid and light sound.
Waltz Songs and a Master Class
The afternoon concert, at the Church of the Wayfarer, was a vocal program titled "Festive Brahms." "Melancholy Brahms" would have been more accurate, though with Brahms they're about the same thing. The Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52, for vocal quartet and piano four-hands, plus the vocal quartets of Op. 92 and the two songs for alto with viola and piano of Op. 91 were given by various performers of mixed quality. Soprano Clara Rottsolk deserves special mention for her particularly strong, firm voice.
Previous to that, the festival's education director, the noted tenor David Gordon, gave a master class at yet another venue, the Presbyterian Church. He coached four singers with different voice ranges in arias by Bach and Handel, entertainingly refining everything from their breathing to their posture. Gordon also led the Q & A session (Thursday's was on "the life of the singer") and gave the preconcert talk on the "Brandenburgs" in the evening, both in the Sunset Theater's lower-floor lecture hall.
This was a typical day at the festival, which will be repeating both the "Brandenburg" Concertos (with the same preconcert talk) and the "Festive Brahms" concerts on the next two Thursdays, July 31 and August 7. Vocal master classes will also be occurring on those days, and there are many other events on other days. Parking in Carmel on a weekday was gratifyingly easy, and I enjoyed my day's expedition to the festival.