The Northwest Bach Festival, now in its 32nd year, celebrated Johann Sebastian Bach at his biggest and best with an inspired performance of the Mass in B minor. The near-capacity audience at St. John’s Cathedral gave the performers an immediate standing ovation.
The Mass, magnificent though it was, was not the only cause for celebration. Gunther Schuller, the festival’s artistic director, put together four concerts that put Bach’s music in the setting of what came before and what came after.
The festival’s opening concert, a recital by pianist Christopher O’Riley, included not only a wonderfully improvisatory approach to Bach’s English Suite No. 6, but a charming sonata by C.G. Neefe, the teacher who introduced Bach’s music to Beethoven.
A chamber music concert Tuesday showcased Spokane musicians playing two of Bach’s stirring masterworks for unaccompanied string instruments. The Chaconne for solo violin was delivered with assured technique and expressive musicianship by Jason Moody. Cellist William Conable, playing the seldom-heard Sixth Cello Suite, demonstrated how powerfully Bach’s music was imbued with dance rhythms.
Tuesday’s concert produced a happy little surprise with a Concerto for Five Flutes by Bach’s French contemporary Joseph Bodin de Boismortier. Flutists Bruce Bodden, Alaina Bercilla, Justin Bahrami, Frieda Chan and Heather Wisswell proved that five flutes can produce a delightful variety of textures and moods. The minor key of this concerto added a tiny touch of wistfulness to the flutes’ bright sound.
The first two festival concerts both ended with Beethoven. O’Riley and Greg Presley played the Grosse Fugue, originally for string quartet, in Beethoven’s own arrangement for piano, four hands. As the latest of late Beethoven, it is a thorny piece no matter how many hands play it. As a complete contrast, Presley, Bodden and bassoonist Lynne Feller-Marshall performed a trio written when Beethoven was a teenager. Only hints of what was to come could be heard in this frothy trio.
There was no froth whatever in the majesty of Bach’s Mass in B minor Friday. Bach’s long, difficult score holds few clues about details of speed or expression, or even whether certain parts are soft or loud. These he entrusts to the conductor. With Schuller, Bach was in excellent hands.
Schuller had at his command a splendid team of soloists, choristers and instrumentalists. Soprano soloist Janet Brown has been a festival regular for many seasons, and she sang Friday with her accustomed agility and clarity.
Tenor Rockland Osgood, another veteran, showed his flexible command of Bach’s demanding high tenor writing in the “Benedictus,” performed in a concerto-like duet with flutist Bodden.
Bach’s parts for the solo bass are in Schuller’s words “a holy terror,” requiring a singer with solid low notes along with an ability to invade tenor territory. Bass-baritone Donald Wilkinson showed in both the “Quoniam” and “Et in sanctum spiritum” that he could meet Bach’s call for a wide range and still bring deep expression to his singing.
Mezzo-soprano Katherine Growdon was the newcomer to the team, and a beautiful match to her colleagues. From her “Christe eleison” duet with Brown and her first highly ornamented solo “Laudamus te” to the “Agnus Dei,” with its doleful sighs, Growdon proved a deeply expressive singer. She is a welcome addition to the festival.
The featured instrumental soloists, Bodden, violinist John Bennett, oboists Keith Thomas and Sheila McNally, bassoonists Feller-Marshall and Like Bakken, and flugelhornist William Berry were fine collaborators with the members of the vocal solo quartet.
Schuller gave special attention to the balance of voices in the Festival Chorus, and Bach’s complex strands, even in such a movement as the 8-part “Osanna in excelsis,” were remarkably clear. Unfortunately in St. John’s Cathedral it seems not possible that the chorus singers can adequately hear the instrumental parts; thus, the choral parts lagged ever so slightly behind the beat. But the power of the big choruses, such as the “Gloria in excelsis” and the somber expressivesness of the “Crucifixus,” were immensely moving.
For me, Friday’s performance showed that Bach was consciously demonstrating both for himself and some unknown public what he had learned from predecessors going as far back as Palestrina and just how far he was capable of “throwing his lance into the future of music,” to borrow composer Franz Liszt’s metaphor.
Schuller and his festival cohorts showed just how magnificently Bach succeeded.
The festival concludes at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14 with an organ recital by John Bodinger at St. Augustine Church featuring the music of Bach, Buxtehude and Vierne.