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In Praise of Sandor Salgo

July 17, 2007

Sunday's matinee performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, a feature of the 70th anniversary season of the Carmel Bach Festival, memorialized Sandor Salgo. In doing so, Music Director Bruno Weil demonstrated a lack of insight into the great work's dramatic arch — the very insight Salgo was famous for during his long tenure at this festival's helm. Even so, Weil has a huge advantage over the resources available to Salgo, in terms of not only the musicians and choral singers but also the acoustic sophistication of the totally renovated Sunset Center, the festival's home.

Sandor Salgo

Salgo, who died earlier this year at age 97, is a prime focus of the souvenir program book's survey of the festival's six decades. Longtimers remember the Salgo years with fondness and nostalgia, and especially his way of pacing the St. Matthew to achieve maximum emotional release among performers and audience alike. In that respect, Salgo was unique, even ahead of his time, though barely steeped in the current performance scholarship that now attends Bach's music everywhere.

Instead, Salgo, a lifelong student of Bach, recognized that our modern understanding of emotion in music descends with compelling authenticity from this work, more than any other of its time or earlier.

For example, Salgo observed the harmonic progress of the five iterations of the "O Sacred Head" chorale, from confidence to desolation, in a way that Weil never has done during his many performances of the work in Carmel over the past 16 seasons. (The lesson that Bach's vocal music must always spring from the words does not mean that the composer's harmonies can be taken for granted.)

Nevertheless, Sunday's performance under Weil's baton unfolded at high standards of execution by orchestra, choirs, and soloists alike. Aria vocalists Kendra Colton, Sally-Anne Russell, Benjamin Butterfield, and Sanford Sylvan — all veterans in these roles — produced their best work. Colton was far more involved and expressive than in the Bach cantata that opened the festival the night before, and Sylvan gave hints that he would have preferred setting the pace himself for his final recitative and aria.

Michael Dean sang the Christus with authority, and Alan Bennett was well-cast as the hardworking, underappreciated Evangelist. Instrumental solos and cameos also got their due. A gaggle of teenage girls supplied the treble line in the opening and closing choruses of the oratorio's first part.
Diction Gone a Bit Soft
This is Andrew Megill's first season as associate conductor (meaning director of the elite chorale) and he inherited a considerable number of voices from last year's chorale, which was handpicked by his predecessor, William Jon Gray. Under the latter's leadership, the chorale spit out consonants with an articulate vengeance that diction-lovers applauded. That cutting edge had gone soft in this festival's opening two programs.

Weil has long since delegated programs to others, including concertmaster Elizabeth Wallfisch (the Monday "main" program among others) and recitalists such as keyboardist Andrew Arthur, lutenist Richard Kolb, and cellist Allen Whear. Under that scheme, it has taken longer for the programming bugs — including some prima donnaisms — to get worked out, but now the festival's presentations overall are running smoothly. (A search is under way to find a new administrative director to replace Jesse Read, who just announced his decision to step down and return exclusively to his role as principal bassoonist.) In fact, Megill has full responsibility for the Wednesday and Thursday "main" programs, respectively at Carmel Mission and Sunset Center, affording the first real opportunity to evaluate his impact.

One huge plus for festival patrons is the wide range of composers represented, including Weil's personal favorites, Haydn and Beethoven. Some years back, the marketing people began promoting the festival under the rubric "Bach and Beyond." Megill's Carmel Mission program includes works by Francis Poulenc, Carlo Gesualdo, Richard Rodney Bennett, and Randall Thompson. (It will be reprised in Salgo's memory at Stanford Memorial Church on July 23.) His program for next Thursday includes choral masterpieces from circa 1707 by the three 1685 "birthday boys," Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti.

In this season alone ticket-buyers can hear rare works by the likes of Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, Dieterich Buxtehude, Wilhelm Hertel, Jean-Joseph Mouret, Christian Pezold, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Tarquinio Merula, Luigi Rossi, Christopher Simpson, Tobias Hume, Nicholas Lanier, Louis Antoine Dornel, Jean Gilles, and many more. Even Fritz Kreisler pops up on a recital by violinist Emlyn Ngai.

The search for the optimal acoustic in the Sunset auditorium continues. A controversial electronic enhancement system was built into the renovation — to compensate for some inherent shortcomings of the room — and was freshly tweaked by its designer before this year's festival began. (It was even further adjusted between the opening Saturday night program and the Sunday matinee under review.) Most of the undesirable artifacts of the original tuning are now gone, and the sonic imagery today may be as good as it gets. At the least, it deserves a fresh audition by the many users and presenters of the room, not least the Carmel Music Society, the Monterey Symphony, and Chamber Music Monterey Bay.

Scott MacClelland has written on music and, in Monterey County, taught on the subject for more than three decades.