CARMEL BACH FESTIVAL
By Lawrence Budmen
Bach to Beethoven: Realism to Idealism is the theme that links the Carmel Bach Festival's two week feast of Baroque and classical era masterworks July 17-31. With a nod to the later romantic era, the third of the three B's - Johannes Brahms - also makes more than a passing appearance. This year's festival marks hail and farewell to artistic director Bruno Weil, concluding a nearly two decade tenure, and concertmaster Elizabeth Wallfisch.
Two choral masterpieces take pride of place in Weil's final season. Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion will be performed on July 18 and 25. The scores of only two of Bach's four passion settings survive. Written in 1727, the St. Matthew Passion is the most ambitious of Bach's sacred works. His scoring for numerous soloists, double choir and an enlarged instrumental contingent was larger in scale than any of his numerous cantatas and sacred works. The works begins and ends with lengthy double choruses that serve as a summation of the passion and crucifixion of Jesus. These large scale choral pieces are harmonically more complex than anything previously attempted. One of the score's unique facets are the beautiful chorales interspersed throughout the two part work which serve to comment on the text and provide an interlude of repose. The tenor Evangelist acts as narrator, his recitatives accompanied by harpsichord continuo. In one of Bach's most unique and masterly touches, the pronouncements of Jesus (a baritone) are supported by the full string contingent. Solo arias are accompanied by string or wind instrumental obbligato, the players as much in the solo spotlight as the vocalists. Bach's audiences in early eighteenth century Leipzig found this score challenging but deeply moving. Music lovers continue to be astounded by the sheer invention and humanity of one of this Baroque master's magnum achievements.
Over the centuries, performances of the St. Matthew Passions have changed both stylistically and in size of forces employed. In the first half of the twentieth century, such famed conductors as Wilhelm Mengelberg, Serge Koussevitzky, Leopold Stokowski and Leonard Bernstein led performances with choirs of several hundred voices and large orchestras, often using organ rather than harpsichord to underline the Evangelist's recitatives. In the l 1960's the new breed of conductor-scholars (including Karl Richter, Nicholas Harencourt and Thurston Dart) began to return to the smaller forces of Bach's day. Studies of period practice confirmed that little or no vibrato was used in vocal and instrumental performances during that era. A new generation of conductors has embraced this research, resulting in performances of greater artistic integrity that bring new insights to the listener. Bruno Weil, renowned for his work in wide ranging repertoire with the Canadian period instrument ensemble Tafelmusik, is a bona fide Baroque specialist who has led the St. Matthew Passion at four previous festivals. It is entirely appropriate that he turns once again to this monumental work during his final season.
Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 changed liturgical music forever. Composing on the cusp of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, Monteverdi seamlessly combined plainchant and madrigals to produce a mesmerizing aural tapestry. From the hushed opening mystical exultation to the angelic sound of female voices in the Dixit Dominus, this revolutionary work abounds in harmonic and contrapuntal writing, path breaking in its dissonance yet touching the heights of sublimity . First performed in the palaces of princes, the Vespers remain a landmark of vocal writing. Some of the solo arias and duets foreshadow Mozart's operas and even the bel canto writing of Donizetti and Bellini. (Monteverdi was also the father of Italian opera) In one of his boldest strokes, Monteverdi concludes the score with an extended Magnificat that brings heavenly joy and deep reverence, a remarkable conclusion to a historic masterwork. Associate conductor Andrew Megill conducts the festival choir, vocal soloists and string and brass players in performances on July 21 and 28 at the Carmel Mission Basilica, an appropriate sacred space for one of the most beautiful declarations of faith ever created.
The music of Beethoven and Brahms takes center stage at Weil's two orchestral programs. The latter's Alto Rhapsody is the centerpiece of the concerts on July 17 and 24. This score is one Brahms' wonderfully spacious, lyrical outpourings. Based on a text by Goethe, the work is a prayer for spiritual redemption of a misanthropic wayfarer. Brahms' writing for contralto, chorus and orchestra is expansive and gently flowing, suggesting an aura of autumnal peace. The score shares the program with Samuel Barber's elegiac Adagio for Strings, two of Bach's cantatas for Sunday services at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig and Beethoven's Choral Fantasy. Unconventionally scored for solo piano, large chorus and full orchestra, this work represents Beethoven at his most idealistic and principled, a hymn to universal human brotherhood and peace - definitely a harbinger of the Ninth Symphony. On the July 23 and 30 program, Brahms' Song of Destiny receives a rare performance. This large scale choral work (written in 1771, one year after the Alto Rhapsody) is a fiery peroration, depicting man's fall into the abyss. This score has disturbed audiences since its initial performances, presenting Brahms' heaven storming side. Weil has long been a acclaimed for his recordings of the symphonies of Franz Josef Haydn, the father of the genre. Haydn's Symphony No.22 (The Philosopher), one of the sunniest of his 104 symphonic essays, opens the program. The concert concludes with Beethoven's ever popular Symphony No.5, the master from Bonn's evocation of victory over struggle.
Wallfisch, a renowned Baroque violin specialist and director her own Wallfisch ensemble, is featured in a chamber orchestra program on July 19 and 26. She will solo in some of Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin and his Concerto for Two violins and strings. Andrew Arthur is harpsichordist, organist and director of a program devoted to a cornucopia of the music of Handel on July 22 and 29, featuring Thomas Cooley in tenor arias from Messiah. Among many matinee chamber concerts, note cellist Rafael Wallfisch's two part traversal of Bach's six suites for solo cello (the first truly important works for that instrument) on July 12 (at Church in the Forrest, Pebble Beach) and July 20 (at San Carlos Cathedral, Monterrey). The Best of the Fest concerts brings a joyous conclusion on July 31.
All performances take place at the Sunset Center Theater unless otherwise noted. Call the festival box office for ticket information at 831-624-1521 or see www.bachfestival.org.