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Youth Has Its Day

July 24, 2007

The world of music has several types of 22-year-old composers — brash, confident ones; shy, talented ones; and painfully insecure ones who look to the past and worry that they were born several generations too late.
Last Thursday, the Carmel Bach Festival presented works by each of these types. The program, made up of pieces composed in 1707 by composers who were 22 during that year, highlighted not only the shifting trends in music at the time but also the personalities of the composers themselves.

J.S. Bach, it seems, was of the shy, talented type. Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (From the deep, Lord, I cry to thee, BWV 131) is possibly the young composer's first attempt at cantata writing. We hear all the techniques that would become his trademarks, from stunning chorale sections to instrumental solos to imitative writing. The only trouble is that many of these occur simultaneously, which can make the texture dense and occasionally muddy. The Carmel musicians' reading did little to counteract these issues. The opening chorale was slightly bland and the singers were not well-blended.

The following bass arioso was nicely sung by baritone Sumner Thomson, who used lovely phrasing and sang warmly. Sadly, though, his lower register was difficult to hear. Roger Cole's oboe obbligato was finely crafted and nuanced. Tenor soloist Ryan Turner's clear tone and effortless top notes made him an ideal singer for this repertoire, but his subtle interpretation did not read effectively in the large hall of Carmel's Sunset Theater. The ensemble, made up of members of the festival orchestra, played with technical brilliance but seemed to treat this opening piece as a warm-up.
Polyphonic Scarlatti
Domenico Scarlatti, the painfully insecure son of a famous composer, wrote vocal music that harks back to the works of Palestrina and Victoria. His Stabat Mater a dieci voci (Stabat Mater for 10 voices) has its feet firmly planted in the tradition of late Renaissance polyphony. The extended setting of the text sends the choir in every direction imaginable, and the ensemble handled the light interplay of vocal lines well, both during full chorus moments and during the occasional solo lines that break up the texture.

To highlight these contrapuntal features, conductor Andrew Megill used impossibly delicate dynamics that occasionally left the sopranos, whose lines reach well above the staff, sounding tired. Still, the ultrapianissimos allowed the fuller moments to soar, as in the final "amen," which provided a suitably full and resounding closure for the piece. Megill conducted with great expression. A few worried looks from the singers, however, suggested that they could have used more precision and less floridity.

The second half of the program began with Bach's cantata for Easter, Christ lag in Todesbanden (Christ lay in death's bonds, BWV 4). Although it probably came from the same year as Cantata 131, we hear a composer significantly more confident and able in the medium. The reading, too, was much more carefully shaped and rendered. The constantly repeating motives came to the forefront, and the chorus produced a far more even and blended sound.

Particularly touching was the duet for the women of the chorus, "Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt" (No one could defeat death). This movement can be performed either by soloists or by the entire section, and the decision to use the ensemble was a wise one. The women produced stunning phrases that began at the smallest of pianissimos, then bloomed gracefully. The orchestra, as well, fully embraced the depth of the work. It played with exquisite accuracy and added the expression and dynamic range that had been missing initially.
Handelian Theatricality
And that brash, overly confident 22-year-old? None other than George Frideric Handel. In 1707 he arrived in Rome and dared all Italy to notice him. His calling card was the dazzling Dixit Dominus. From the first phrase alone, a listener can tell that he had already mastered the art of extravagant theatrical displays. Whether or not he was writing to prove that he had absorbed the virtuosic Italian style, Handel gives us quite a show.

In Carmel the orchestra began the piece with a vengeance. It embraced the bright flamboyance of the running 16th-note motives that pass from one part to another, and seemed to relish the opportunity to let loose and have a good time. Following the opening choral movement came the alto solo "Virgam virtutis tuae," sung by countertenor Jay White, whose bright, operatic sound was appropriately exciting. Here and there he could have used a more focused tone and greater expression. Soprano Susan Consoli handled the acrobatic "Tecum principo" section with great clarity and excellent passagework.

In the fuller, more simply stated movements, the chorus achieved a rounder, richer timbre than before, which contributed to the work's drama. The most thrilling soloist of the evening was the unassuming Jolaine Kerley, whose duet with Laura Heimes was full of the close dissonances that we associate with earlier Italian composers. Kerley demonstrated a complete understanding of Baroque style and sensibility, and her voice had a stunning purity. The closing movement, which started more simply and became livelier, proved that imitative writing was not solely Bach's domain. With the exception of a patch of dodgy intonation from the soprano section, the Dixit Dominus left quite an impression. Many members of the audience jumped to their feet as soon as the final note was cut off.

While uneven, this concert contained some exquisite moments. It allowed listeners to witness the varied and diverse ideas that were being explored at the opening of the 18th century. The program will be repeated on July 26 and August 2.

Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Miller holds degrees in singing from London's Royal Academy of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.