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Bach Festival delights and astounds

Ezra Pound once urged modern writers to “Make It New.” This year’s Northwest Bach Festival under artistic director Zuill Bailey is an example of making it new. With nearly 30 performances and outreach programs during the festival’s two-week run, this surely is a tribute to Bailey’s guiding spirit, formidable talent and incredible energy.

That being said, just because something is new doesn’t always necessarily mean better – more of that later.

There is no question that Sunday’s finale was brilliant in programming and execution on the part of Bailey and his guest artist, pianist Lara Downes. All of the works are on the duo’s new CD “Some Other Time.” Each of the performers gave thorough and enjoyable spoken program notes about the selections on this entirely American concert. Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss, Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland was performed brilliantly, no exceptions.

The three major works were written when the composers were in their 20s: Sonata for Cello and Piano was composed when Barber was 22; Capriccio was written by 26-year-old Lukas Foss; Bernstein was only 24 when he wrote Sonata for Clarinet and Piano.

Bernstein would “borrow” music ideas from this early work when he composed the music to “West Side Story” 16 year later. The transcription of this difficult work for piano and cello by Bailey and Downes was exceptionally well done. Bailey remarked about transcriptions that “There are no rules – except that it sound right.” It sounded very “right.”

There were also transcriptions of vocal music by Barber, Bernstein and Copland that engaged the audience during the performance. Piano tributes composed by Bernstein and Foss also pointed out the very close connections between all four American composers represented.

Speaking of young American composers, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” composed when he was 26, highlighted Downes’ “Bach to Brubeck” recital at the Barrister Winery on Saturday evening. The extremely cordial audience was entertained and enlightened with musical connections from Bach to jazz legend Dave Brubeck. Her opening selection was J.S. Bach’s extraordinary Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903. This was, I believe, the first performance of this work at the Northwest Bach Festival.

All of the music performed during the finale concert on Sunday and Saturday’s recital was also new to the festival. In fact, none of the American composers mentioned above are listed in the extensive list provided in last year’s festival. Foss and Brubeck were performed in 2012 during Downes’ concert.

So is new better? Should we suggest the title be changed to the Northwest All-American Classics Festival based on the final two concerts? There may be some who want to hear “more Bach” in a Bach festival. Still, there were chances this year to listen to Bailey perform Bach’s solo cello suites in any of six different, more intimate venues. The Winter Tour of the Northwest Bach Festival included two concerts at the historic Cutter Theatre in Metaline Falls last December.

The exuberance Bailey and his guest artists displayed is intoxicating. All of these world-class performers wanted to engage their respective audiences with music that would delight and astound. They succeeded. The idea of extending the range geographically is long overdue. It will be fascinating to witness Bach 15, Bailey’s sophomore year as artistic director, and if that engagement and all those “connections” to music past and present are still there.