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Concert review: As has been tradition, BachFest ends on a high note

UPDATED: Mon., March 12, 2018, 4:57 p.m.

Cellist and Northwest BachFest artistic director Zuill Bailey performed Sunday at St. John’s Cathedral for the festival’s grand finale, along with organist John Bodinger and pianist Elizabeth DeMio. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Cellist and Northwest BachFest artistic director Zuill Bailey performed Sunday at St. John’s Cathedral for the festival’s grand finale, along with organist John Bodinger and pianist Elizabeth DeMio. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The crowd that filled the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on Sunday afternoon was anything but solemn and reverential. The church was packed, but not by worshippers – unless you wish to say that they worshipped the high standards of musical skill and commitment that have been offered throughout the 40th season of the Northwest BachFest, of which this was the final performance.

The presence (if not the actual music) of J.S. Bach was never far from any of the programs, but it was stamped in boldface on this one, which opened with his Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for organ. This was the first of several pieces for organ performed by the cathedral’s organist John Bodinger, who played a significant part in last year’s Bach festival, as both organist and pianist.

Bach’s C minor Passacaglia and Fugue makes such a powerful impression on the listener, it is difficult to think of it only as music. It seems to combine the resources of all the arts: painting, literature, sculpture and architecture, as well as music, and to define the loftiest goals one can hope to attain in all of them. For organists, it is the 4-minute mile, the hole-in-one and the 61st home run combined. The organist must be as successful in portraying grandeur as humility, comedy as pathos and ferocity as lyricism, which demands a deep understanding both of the music on the page and also of how it can best be realized by the specific instrument played since Bach left no indications of tempo or dynamics, much less such refinements as voicing and registration. Bodinger proved himself equal to Bach’s every challenge in this stupendously great work and left the audience at once exhausted and exhilarated.

In the two ensuing works for solo organ, the Meditation (1928) of Louis Vierne and the Choral No. 3 in A minor of Cesar Franck (1890), Bodinger proved himself again as no mere technician, but an urgently communicative musician, capable of reaching through the complex mechanism of his instrument to galvanize an audience.

His final performance Sunday was as the discrete accompanist to festival director Zuill Bailey in the first of two works influenced by the Jewish tradition: The “Kol Nidrei” (1880) of Max Bruch and “Schelomo, An Hebraic Rhapsody” (1916) by Ernest Bloch. Bruch was not a Jew and regarded the Hebrew melodies he employed in his work for cello and orchestra with the same detachment as he felt from the Hibernian themes of his celebrated “Scottish Fantasy” for Violin, Harp and Orchestra. Furthermore, he sits on the branch of Romanticism started by Felix Mendelssohn, which is characterized by formal balance, restrained emotion and deft touches of pictorial color.

In contrast, Bloch was born a Jew in Switzerland and came to the U.S. before World War I. Bloch worked in a conservative modern idiom and in many of his works expressed intense, turbulent emotion. “Schelomo” truly is a rhapsody, propelled by its own emotional energy, following its own psychological contours rather than being governed by traditional formal structures. It places extravagant demands both on the soloist and orchestra, or, in this case, on the pianist who elects to take it on. The pianist we had the pleasure to hear on Sunday, Elizabeth DeMio, had nothing to fear from Bloch’s thorny and explosive writing, or from anything else written for the instrument, for that matter.

She never allowed a sliver of daylight to open up between her and her gifted, highly spontaneous partner. In this and in the closing piece on the program, Chopin’s Polonaise Brillante in C major Op. 3, she demonstrated not only admirable musicianship, but some serious technique. The Chopin was performed in an edition by the legendary cellist Emmanuel Feuermann, in which the editor designed to impart the same virtuoso dazzle to the cello part that the composer gave to the piano, and Bailey swallowed it in a single gulp. Having long ago forgotten the meaning of the phrase “technical difficulty,” Zuill Bailey took the Polonaise at a breathtaking clip without ever causing DeMio to sound a single false note or to smudge a single phrase. Believe me, somebody has really practiced her scales!

Zuill Bailey burst upon the consciousness of most of us here by performing the six Suites for Cello by Bach during the festival six years ago, seated in the same spot he occupied on Sunday afternoon. Though it seemed then that his playing could not possibly be improved, it has since grown even more flexible, spontaneous and spellbinding. That such a gifted musician also has the skill, and time, to program a complex music festival with such insight and imagination is truly a cause for celebration, especially in Spokane.

Larry Lapidus can be reached at larry.lapidus@gmail.com.


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