The sound that arose from the crowd gathered on Friday night at Barrister Winery is hard to describe. It was not so much a shout as a cry; a cry of amazement, of disbelief, of joy. It was a cry, too, of gratitude for the two hours of delightful and astonishing music that the audience had enjoyed at the latest performance of the Northwest BachFest.
Having spent so much of his 10 years as artistic director outside the box, Zuill Bailey no longer recognizes its existence, and so brought four musicians from all over the globe to play for his Spokane audience.
Joining us from Kansas City was double bass virtuoso Xavier Foley. From Bahrain came Isa Najem, who has studied cello with Bailey, but who is also an acknowledged master of the oud, a progenitor of the lute indigenous to the region of the Eastern Mediterranean. Cellist Ciceley Parnas flew in from Berlin to join Najem and guitarist Chris Beroes-Haigis, who traveled from New Orleans. Together, Najem, Parnas and Beroes-Haigis make up the trio Oud to Joy, which they formed only a few months ago under Bailey’s guidance at his International Cello Seminar in Sitka, Alaska.
Foley has to be seen and heard to be believed, and even then it is hard to believe so much skill, temperament and musicality could be contained in a single individual. He began the program at the pinnacle of western music, by performing the Suite No. 5 in C minor of J.S. Bach. When played on the solo cello for which it was written, this piece is challenging. To transpose the piece to the double bass, commonly thought of as an inflexible and inexpressive instrument, might seem at first to be a circus stunt. To hear the tenderness, the vigor and the tonal variety with which Foley imbues every bar is to dismiss all such prejudice forever.
Later in the program, Foley performed four of his own compositions for his instrument, all of which displayed a fertile wit, inventiveness and lyrical gift. The group concluded with an Irish Fantasy on the folk song “The Clergyman’s Lamentation,” which allowed Foley to display his mastery of every device of bowing and fingering in the book, and some that will first appear in the book he has yet to write.
Bailey took the stage to perform a work which, though little-known, is exceptionally fine: the Suite for Solo Cello by the distinguished Spanish cellist, Gaspar Cassado (1897-1966). The piece is Spanish in character, and Bailey’s passionate performance conveyed all the raw intensity with which a flamenco singer inspires his dancer. Bailey encompassed the work’s brutal technical demands without the slightest difficulty, as he focused on its authentic color and emotion.
The program concluded with our third opportunity to enjoy the playing of the trio Oud to Joy, following their performances in July at the Music at Manito concert and Barrister Winery. Unlike the other works on Saturday’s program, all of those we heard from this trio followed the pattern of most jazz and world music performances, in which prepared statements of a melody alternate with stretches of improvisation. The tonal variety of Oud to Joy is a delight, deriving from the players’ keen sensitivity to the different characteristics of each other’s instrument: the plaintive lyricism of Parnas’ cello, the penetrating rhythmic and harmonic contribution of Beroes-Haigis’ fretted steel-string Martin guitar, and the exotic, infinitely expressive voice of Najem’s oud, which can narrate, plead, hector or dazzle with displays of virtuoso fireworks. We heard four such improvisations, based on haunting or vivacious melodies by Beroes-Haigis: “Rise,” “Afterglow,” “Embrace,” and “Cuckoo,” which began with Najem’s startingly realistic imitation of a cuckoo, which was then imitated, varied and handed back by the guitar, and so on to a breathless conclusion.
Delicious as all this was, it proved to be merely prelude to the final work on the program, a wholly improvised piece in which Foley joined the trio. Though the idea of this collaboration had only originated minutes earlier in a backstage conversation among the players, it was plain from the start that they had found a groove that was going to carry them, and us, to an enticing destination. Ideas tumbled out thick and fast, as each player picked up the impulse developed by the last to play, developing it seamlessly before tossing it to the one of his partners whose instrument produced the most piquant and colorful contrast. The energy spiraled ever higher until, to everyone’s amazement, we heard a passage of strutting assertiveness improvised on his oud by Najem imitated on Foley’s bass with precise duplication, not only of the rhythm and pitches, but even the subtle, quicksilver “bendings” of every note. At first, we didn’t trust our ears. Surely, it was not possible to do this without careful rehearsal; but no: there it was again, perfect, as before. The audience stared in disbelief as the two players handed phrases back and forth, building tension to a breaking point.
And then, it was over. After a moment of silence, there arose from the audience an indescribable sound: not so much a shout as a cry.
This Northwest BachFest performance was reviewed Friday at Barrister Winery. Other performances this weekend include a free concert at 5 p.m. Saturday on the campus of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, and a Sunday afternoon performance at Barrister. For information or tickets, visit nwbachfest.com/.
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