The 31st Annual Northwest Bach Festival found a way to go beyond J.S. Bach with music composed both before Bach lived and after he died.
In this year’s four concerts, festival director Gunther Schuller continued making familiar music fresh and introducing old music that is new to most listeners.
Schuller told his audiences that he had put together a plan that extended the range of the concerts from a century before Bach to a century beyond.
Who else would have thought of putting Bach’s famous Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue alongside Beethoven’s virtually unknown Variations on “God Save the King”? Or introducing a concert with the alarmingly dissonant “Le Cahos” (“Chaos”) from a dance symphony by Louis XIV’s court composer Jean-Fery Rebel?
Schuller, in his 16th year with the festival, had a surprise for every program. And he brought out the best in fine Spokane performers such as bassist John Frankhauser, flutist Bruce Bodden and pianist Linda Siverts. Schuller’s visiting artists – harpsichordist Mark Kroll, organist James David Christie, and singers Janet Brown, Krista River, Rockland Osgood and Donald Wilkinson – added the experience of distinguished careers to the festival.
With 29 works (not including encores) spread over four concerts, I can touch here on only a few pieces from two concerts at St. John’s Cathedral that stay in my mind after the sounds evaporated.
Tuesday’s performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 came as a surprise. It has never been my favorite of the six Brandenburgs. It seems like a cozy blanket of a piece alongside the colorful tapestry of its companions. But Schuller and 10 solo string players made it seem more like lace – revealing Bach’s artful weaving of melodic strands. Adding to the effect, harpsichordist Kroll improvised a short interlude between the two fast movements to substitute for the slow movement Bach neglected to write. Kroll included references to the melodies in the first movement without being obvious about it.
Pianist Siverts closed Tuesday’s concert with what may have been Joseph Haydn’s earliest surviving piano sonata. It was worlds away from the intricacies of Bach, with simple melodies that skipped and soared over the simplest of accompaniments. Even more startling was it was not the work of some child prodigy, but of a 34-year-old man. Siverts played it with childlike innocence braced with a wink of adult wit.
The festival’s Saturday finale brought Bach’s great German 17th-century predecessor Heinrich Schütz and the classicism of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart together with two cantatas by Bach himself. A series of short motets written for one to five voices showed how deeply expressive Schütz could make these German texts.
After the austerity of the Schütz motets, hearing two of Bach’s cantatas (No. 98 and 99) on the same text, “Was Gott tut, das is wohlgetan (What God Does is Rightly Done),” was like leaving a sparsely appointed renaissance chamber and entering an opulently furnished baroque room. The festival’s chorus and quartet of visiting singers brought the same devotion to expressive and clear diction as well as vocal beauty we have come to expect from Schuller’s vocal performers over the years.
Mozart’s not-at-all-solemn “Vesperae solemnes di confessore” closed the festival with the 26-year-old composer showing that he could write “severe” counterpoint like Bach (well, almost) and then follow with an operatic aria. It was like he opened the door to yet another musical world.