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Schuller delights festival audience

Gunther Schuller’s valedictory concert Saturday for the Northwest Bach Festival was, in one sense, his way of slyly reminding us that “there is nothing new under the sun.” The four pieces programmed were an aural revelation for the audience.

Capriccio Stravagante (“Extravagent Caprice”) by Carlo Farina (1600-1639) was, for its time, a very modern work. As Schuller noted, “it was the first string orchestra composition that used techniques of col legno (using the wood of the bow), sul ponticello (near the bridge) and pizzicato.”

This delightful piece was replete with “wrong notes” and animal imitations, and the final bars were simply conducted in silence by the conductor.

The centerpieces of Saturday’s concert were two of J.S. Bach’s most beloved instrumental works. The Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1042 featured guest soloist Yuri Namkung. Schuller called this concerto “one of Bach’s greatest creations … it is so clear, beautifully written with Mozartean clarity.”

Namkung was superb in not being a flashy soloist but serving as a member of the ensemble. She was musically engaged at all times during the three movements.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047 followed after intermission. The concertino (small group) consisted of: Ryan Beach, trumpet; Namkung, violin; Bruce Bodden, flute; and Keith Thomas, oboe.

All four quartet members gave dazzling performances as they took turns with the themes. The balance between the four of them and the large ensemble was excellent. Once again, as they did March 2, the continuo group of harpsichord, cello and bass provided a rock-solid foundation for the entire concerto.

The programming for this concert was sheer genius with two of Bach’s best-known works framed by two pre-Bach era selections. The final composition was Ecce Beatam Lucen (“Beautiful Light”),  A Motet in 40 Parts. Allessandro Striggio (1536-1592) wrote this work, one of only two of his that still exist, without definite performance instructions. Schuller orchestrated this amazing piece for 10 groups of four that included singers and instrumentalists. He said, “It was some kind of religious drama, perhaps for a cardinal or bishop. It uses only seven different triads … and is quite amazing.”

The Gonzaga University Chamber Singers, directed by Timothy Westerhaus, gave a stunning performance along with the orchestra. The work is only about five minutes long, so Schuller told the audience to “close your eyes and just listen the first time.” The ensembles then repeated the motet. The choral sound was sublime as were the dynamics, phrasing and those points of silence that transfixed the audience. This masterful performance and “re-creation” of a centuries-old work makes the neo-Renaissance sounds of modern composers pale in comparison.

On Sunday pianist Christopher O’Riley, popular host of “From the Top” on National Public Radio, performed Bach’s Goldberg Variations BWV 988 to a capacity audience at St. John’s Cathedral. This was the only performance of this work during the history of the Northwest Bach Festival. O’Riley remarked that the “story of how these variations came to be may be apocryphal given recent research.”

However apocryphal or spurious the legend, there was absolutely nothing spurious about O’Riley’s dazzling, spellbinding performance of this difficult work. His technique, dynamics and emotional nuances were flawless. His hands transformed Bach’s music in such an uncanny manner that the audience was totally silent during the entire length of the piece.

O’Riley was rewarded with three call backs from an audience that will forever remember this once-in-a-lifetime experience. As we have heard him say to young guests on his radio show many times: “You nailed it!”

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