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Sunday, September 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Review: Zuill Bailey shakes things up in BachFest fall season debut

Northwest Bach Festival artistic director and Grammy Award winner Zuill Bailey performs with his 1693 cello for a crowd gathered at the WSU Spokane Academic Center for a Flash-Bach! concert Feb. 24, 2017, in Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Northwest Bach Festival artistic director and Grammy Award winner Zuill Bailey performs with his 1693 cello for a crowd gathered at the WSU Spokane Academic Center for a Flash-Bach! concert Feb. 24, 2017, in Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

Recent years have seen the rise in what we might call the “curator/artist”: a person responsible for organizing a show of works of art whose creative vision is as important as that of the artist or artists whose work is being exhibited.

Since assuming the role of artistic director of the Northwest BachFest, Zuill Bailey has not only continued its elevation into the front ranks of similar events in our country, but he also has used his authority in planning the programs and engaging the performers to instruct all of us in how to engage with and comprehend the world of classical music in our time.

Not content with dusting off long-loved scores by Beethoven and Brahms and creating a stable of familiar players to perform them, Bailey set out from the start to shake things up by programming little-known works by well-known composers, radical transformations of familiar masterpieces or immersive, blockbuster series of masterworks (Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” for example) formerly regarded as off-limits in a festival setting.

Sunday’s kick-off of the festival’s fall season, titled “Spanish Nights,” at Barrister Winery was a perfect example. Bailey called on four friends who are brilliant musicians (he seems to have a very large circle of tremendously gifted close friends) to perform works by all of the leading Spanish composers of the 20th century, with the exception of Isaac Albeniz.

We heard works by Joaquin Rodrigo (“Sonata Pimpante”), Manuel de Falla (“Seven Spanish Popular Songs”), Enrique Granados (“Andaluz” from his “Spanish Dances, Op. 37”) and Joaquin Turina (“Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 67”). Emphasizing the questing, dynamic spirit behind the festival, Bailey himself performed two works not on the program, Pablo Casals’ “The Song of the Birds” and the “Sarabande” from J.S. Bach’s First Suite for Solo Cello.

Joaquin Rodrigo is the composer of what is likely the world’s most familiar piece of Spanish instrumental music, the “Concierto de Aranjuez” (1939) for guitar and orchestra. The work we heard Sunday, the “Sonata Pimpante,” on the other hand, is so unfamiliar that it fails to warrant inclusion in what pretends to be a listing of Rodrigo’s complete works in Wikipedia.

Yet it was revealed in a performance by violinist Kurt Nikkanen and pianist Alfredo Oyaguez as a work of brilliant invention, superb construction and inspiring impact. Nikkanen has appeared several times in Spokane, giving us interpretations of concertos by Sibelius and Beethoven that displayed technical mastery and gripping, imaginative engagement. His performance of the Rodrigo Sonata maintained that very high standard.

It was exciting to be able to be so close to him and watch his unremitting, varying bow speed and pressure, subtly varying his vibrato to achieve the greatest possible degree of expressivity in every measure. He was fortunate to have the support of Oyaguez, who is intimately familiar with the music and whose accompaniment was a model of accuracy and vitality.

The difficulty in mounting a performance of a group of songs for mezzo-soprano and orchestra has meant that we have had to depend on recordings as a way of experiencing Falla’s powerful “Seven Spanish Popular Songs.” Leave it to Bailey to find an arrangement for viola and piano and to bring in violist Scott Rawls, who last appeared at the festival in 2016, to perform it.

The viola is widely regarded as less moving and expressive than the violin. In Rawls’ hands, however, the instrument achieved tremendous expressive variety, ranging from the dusky sensuality of the famous “Jota” to the tender sweetness of “Nana,” a lullaby. For each number, Rawls was able to find an appropriate “voice” to convey Falla’s emotional message, just as a vocal soloist would do. It was a remarkable achievement.

The evening concluded with a performance of Turina’s Piano Quartet, which, while very enjoyable in the way we might take pleasure in finding a faded rose pressed in the leaves of an old volume of poetry, could not disguise the composer’s emulation of models pressed on him during his studies in Paris by such fashionable composers as Gabriel Faure and Ernest Chausson and his half-hearted identification with the music of his own country at that point in his career.

During the few minutes in which Bailey held the stage himself in performing the Bach Sarabande and the Casals “Song of the Birds,” it must be said that we all felt the presence of something beyond technique and interpretive originality: that mysterious connection a few rare artists can give us to the wellspring of music, indeed of artistic creation itself.

When he plays, we may hear a vibrating string, but what we feel is yearning and disappointment, compassion and love. We feel our very humanity and even glimpse whatever it is that lies beyond it.

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