Northwest Bach Festival Sunday, Jan. 14, St. John’s Cathedral
The 18th Northwest Bach Festival ended Sunday afternoon by celebrating the greatness of orchestral music by J.S. Bach and his contemporaries. The near-capacity audience at St. John’s Cathedral was slow to begin applause at the end of the concert, hoping as I did, perhaps, that there was more music to come. The subsequent prolonged standing ovation showed the audience found this the perfect antidote to a gloomy Sunday.
The concert opened with a world premiere, well, a premiere of a sort anyway. Especially for this concert, Gunther Schuller, the festival’s artistic director and conductor, assembled a ravishing suite from the hundreds of suites and concertos written by Georg Philipp Telemann. “Telemann always wrote competently,” Schuller says, “but when he was on, he was on.”
Schuller put together eight movements in which Telemann was “on” and at his greatest. There was no need for changes in Telemann’s orchestration. Bach’s friend and colleague had a great ear for instrumental effects. The exchange between oboe, violin and trumpet in the suite’s Air, the sparkle of the minor-key Rejouissance, and the unexpected richness of a miniature concerto for four solo violins - these alone make me hope that Schuller’s “compilation” will be published and recorded.
The principal soloists of Sunday’s concert were oboist Allan Vogel, an always-welcome visiting artist from Los Angeles, and Spokane Symphony concertmaster Kelly Farris. In Handel’s familiar Concerto in G minor, Vogel lavished his gifts characterizing every movement with the appropriate quality of sound and phrasing - whether it was the plaintive opening or the rollicking and robust finale. Farris was eloquent in a recitativelike Adagio from a rarely played concerto by Francesco Bonporti, a composer Bach deeply admired but who is almost unknown today.
Closing the concert was Bach’s own Suite No. 4, with its powerful overture and series of light-footed dances. There was a special elegance in the details of phrasing in the suite’s two Minuets. That elegance coupled with the high spirits of the closing Rejouissance were symptomatic of Schuller’s interpretations of baroque music.
Schuller’s performances of these works, written more than 250 years ago, made them seem as fresh as the day they were written. But this is an age of specialization. It doesn’t seem fair that a composer and conductor of complex modern music can be so successful with the music of Bach and Handel (to say nothing of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Duke Ellington).
What makes it possible for Schuller to bring some of the best baroque music making to Spokane, far from the hubs of early music performance in Boston, San Francisco or London?
After all, Schuller uses primarily local players and singers, performers such as Farris and such other Spokane Symphony players as trumpeter Larry Jess, oboist Keith Thomas and cellist Cheryl Rand. The instrumentalists use modern instruments - winds with keys and valves, strings with steeply rounded bridges and metal strings. Even visiting artists such as Vogel usually perform on modern instruments.
But there is a renewing vitality in what Schuller extracts of these musicians. That liveliness absorbs the sincerity of early music specialists with their attention to correct ornamentation, tempos just the right shade of fast or slow, and rhythmic alternations painstakingly imposed - yet, Schuller goes beyond those details into the love of making and hearing great music.
How exactly does Schuller do it? I simply do not know. But the fact he does it, and he does it right here in Spokane, is something we can all rejoice in.
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