Spokane’s Northwest Bach Festival celebrates its 32nd season starting this weekend with music by Bach and a batch more composers.
It begins Saturday with a piano recital by Christopher O’Riley at St. John’s Cathedral. The festival continues next week with chamber music and a performance of Bach’s monumental B Minor Mass, and concludes on Valentine’s Day with an organ concert by John Bodinger at St. Augustine’s Church.
O’Riley’s program includes J.S. Bach’s English Suite No. 6, along with solo keyboard sonatas by Bach’s Italian contemporary Domenico Scarlatti, his German predecessor Johann Kuhnau and Beethoven’s teacher C.G. Neefe.
O’Riley will be joined by pianist Greg Presley for the piano duet version of Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge.”
“What I wanted Christopher to do in this recital is not only to show what Bach’s music is like but to show what it is coming out of and in what direction it is going,” says Gunther Schuller, the festival’s longtime artistic director.
“A Bach festival is more than just a concert or concerts, it shows us what we’re celebrating.”
O’Riley is a nationally known figure not only as a pianist but also as the host of his National Public Radio program “From the Top,” which showcases young musicians from all over the country.
Probably no other pianist can match the breadth of O’Riley’s musical interests. He performs and has recorded standard works by Liszt and Ravel as well as new music by Michael Torke and transcriptions of pieces by Radiohead and Nick Drake.
He grew up in Chicago and attended the New England Conservatory in Boston when Schuller was its president.
“When I was growing up, even though my classical lesson took precedence, I still kept up with and enjoyed what was going on in the worlds of pop and rock music. I had my own little rock band,” O’Riley said by telephone from Hawaii, where he was taping a show.
“I’ll have to say right away that my whole Spokane program is Gunther’s idea,” he added. “What he was after was to show Bach’s predecessors and successors – that Bach’s music wasn’t written in a vacuum. There were composers around whose music Bach knew, like Kuhnau, and some he probably didn’t, like Scarlatti.
“Then when you look at where Bach’s music goes through a teacher like Neefe to the very latest late Beethoven in the ‘Grosse Fuge,’ you just have shake your head in amazement. I think the program will be a real ear-opener.”
The version of the “Grosse Fuge” that O’Riley and Presley will perform is an alternative version of the fugue that was originally the finale of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 130.
“The arrangement of this fugue for four hands at one piano is the last work Beethoven completed,” Schuller says, “and is some of the most demonically difficult music to play and for us to understand.
“But the piano duet version has a kind of clarity that you simply can’t achieve in the string quartet version, great as it is. Then to contrast with the very late Beethoven, we have on the chamber music program a Trio in G major he wrote for flute, bassoon and piano when he was only 16 and still studying with Neefe.”
Tuesday’s chamber music program will feature nine Spokane musicians playing music by composers from Bach to Beethoven.
“The most unusual work on this program is the Concerto in E minor for five unaccompanied flutes by Joseph Boismortier,” Schuller says.
“This composer lived at the same time as Bach, and he wrote a tremendous amount of music, some of it really very fine. It’s really quite amazing what he can achieve in sonority and expressivness with these five flutes.”
Boismortier was the first French composer to use the Italian term “concerto,” just as Kuhnau was the first German to use the Italian “sonata” for a solo keyboard work.
“I’ve put the Boismortier Concerto at the beginning of the program,” Schuller says, “and the Trio by the teenage Beethoven at the end, with two of Bach’s most magnificent works for solo strings in the middle – the Chaconne for Solo Violin and the Sixth Suite for Solo Cello.”
Flutists Bruce Bodden, Alaina Bercilla, Justin Bahrami, Frieda Chan and Heather Wisswell will perform Boismortier’s Concerto. Violinist Jason Moody and cellist William Conable will perform Bach’s works for solo strings.
Bodden will be joined by bassoonist Lynne Feller-Marshall and pianist Greg Presley for the young Beethoven’s Trio.