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Review: Festival explores breadth of Bach’s influence

The first two concerts of this year’s Northwest Bach Festival celebrated the net Bach cast over the musical world. Bach knew music written long before his birth, and Bach’s compositions extended his influence well after his death. 

Conductor Gunther Schuller and the musicians of the 33rd Annual Northwest Bach Festival hauled in a significant catch of the music in that net Tuesday and Saturday at St. John’s Cathedral. The 85-year-old Schuller’s enthusiasm shows through in the dancing energy he brings to the rhythms and the careful balance he brings to dissonance and resolutions in the harmony. The music moves inexorably forward and is never flat-footed.

Tuesday’s program focused on the concerto, just one of the forms Bach took up from his predecessors. Schuller led a chamber orchestra and local soloists Jason Moody, John Bennett, Keith Thomas and William Berry in spirited exploration of four concertos from Bach’s time.

Moody opened Tuesday’s concert with deliciously improvisatory playing of the Adagio for violin and strings from Francesco Antonio Bonporti’s Concerto in F major. Though Bonporti was a priest, he might just as well been an opera composer, as Moody showed in the operatic intensity of this famous Adagio. Schuller had Moody encore the Adagio at the end of Tuesday’s program.

Bach wrote who-knows-how-many concertos for a concert series he conducted in a Leipzig coffeehouse in the 1720s and ’30s – some for single soloists, others for two or more soloists. Bach often reworked some of these concertos for completely different instruments. The Concerto for Violin and Oboe is one such reworking. Bach’s Concerto for Two Harpsichords (BWV 1060) was originally for violin and oboe, and modern musicologists have made attempts to reconstruct the original. Their results (there are at least three of them) now rival the two-harpsichord version in popularity.

Violinist John Bennett and oboist Keith Thomas responded like genial conversationalists to the dialog of the concerto’s fast movements and made the central slow movement sound like a duet from one of Bach’s cantatas.

Trumpet soloist William Berry encountered every brass player’s nightmare with a sticking valve on his piccolo trumpet at the beginning of G.P. Telemann’s Concerto in D. Berry dealt with it and gave Telemann’s work a delightful sparkle.

Two of Bach’s church cantatas provided the core of Saturday’s concert. But Schuller began the program with Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Easter Week motet, “The Denial of St. Peter.” This tiny oratorio is seldom performed but deeply moving. Countertenor Josh Haberman was dramatically effective in projecting Peter’s three increasingly angry denials. And tenor Rockland Osgood’s singing of the part of Jesus was appropriately calm and resigned.

Had Bach known this Frenchman’s work – there is no reason to believe he did – the motet  might have been seen as an influence on the similarly anguished scene in Bach’s St. John Passion.

Schuller chose the earliest known of Bach’s church cantatas, along with one of the first cantatas Bach wrote on assuming his job in Leipzig for Saturday’s concert. Both have startling endings. Cantata No. 77, “Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben” (Thou Shalt Love the Lord, thy God), ends with a harmony that sounds one chord short of a satisfying end. Cantata No. 71, “Gott ist mein König” (God is My King), does not end so much as it stops abruptly.

Saturday’s performance had the advantage of excellent soloists along with a responsive chorus and orchestra. Soprano Janet Brown brought her customary uncanny skill with Bach’s florid melodies and complex ornamentation, but she never let that virtuosity intrude on her arias’ emotional intensity. 

Mezzo-soprano Katherine Growdon showed a glowing tone and great versatility in her two arias, both with trumpet obbligato. The lament “Ach, es bleibt in meiner Liebe” (Ah, There Remains in My Love) from Cantata No. 77 has an unusually soft and lyrical trumpet line played with subtle warmth by Berry and matched by Growdon.  The firmly martial “Durch mächtige Kraft” (Through Powerful Strength) from Cantata No. 71 features three trumpets and timpani with Growdon showing the heft called for in the text. 

Bass soloist Donald Wilkinson, who in past festivals has shown the strength of his high register, showed the depths of his range Saturday in “Tag und Nacht ist Dein” (Day and Night are Thine) from Cantata No. 71. Osgood sang with the agility and clarity that Bach Festival audience have come to expect from him.



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