Photograph by R.R. Jones
NOT YOUR BABA'S BACH: Over time the Carmel Bach Festival has evolved into a sweeping program of Baroque and classical music, complete with pieces for full orchestra.
Departing artistic director Bruno Weil leaves a thriving, innovative Carmel Bach Festival
By Scott MacClelland
IN SUMMING up his 19th and final season as Carmel Bach Festival music director, Bruno Weil said he has found himself "awed, inspired and transformed" by the genius of J.S. Bach. During his tenure, he has performed the St. Matthew Passion, one of Bach's greatest and most personal works, many times.
The St. Matthew can now be viewed as symbolizing Weil's odyssey on the road to his transformation. No two productions over the years have been the same. Last Sunday's performance of his final return to it in Carmel was in many ways the most fully satisfying of them all.
Weil began his Carmel journey with controversial performances of Bach's St. Matthew and St. John Passions, the Mass in B Minor and Christmas Oratorio. Compared with his predecessor, Sandor Salgo, Weil was criticized for excessively fast tempos, insufficient attention to the words, experimentation for its own sake and ultimately what seemed to be an impatience with the festival's namesake, squeezing out Bach in favor of composers of other eras, principally the classical masters Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. (This was in fact often a misperception, since Salgo had consistently included Mozart and occasionally Beethoven.)
Yet, over time, Weil transformed the Bach Festival in many important and valuable ways. He brought in a stable of early-music specialists to recreate Baroque performance practices and deferred to them in many of the programs. They include Baroque violin virtuoso Elizabeth Wallfisch and organist John Butt, then keyboardist Andrew Arthur and cellist and chamber music specialist Allen Whear, and lastly, chorale director Andrew Megill, who also serves as associate conductor. (Until recently, and for several years, the festival was called "Bach and Beyond," given the increasing departures into the early Baroque and 19th century; "and beyond" was dropped last year.)
But this season has the look and feel of a completely mature and unapologetic vision. The inclusion of Monteverdi's great 1610 Vespers (under Megill's direction), Wallfisch's all-strings program equating Telemann with Bach and Locatelli, Arthur's all-Handel (vocal and instrumental) concert, an "Aha, Beethoven" sampler with education director David Gordon, a Haydn/Brahms/Beethoven evening, and a vast variety of chamber music and recital programs now seem like a new platform ready to hand over to Weil's successor, Paul Goodwin, who takes over in 2011.
And there is truly no shortage of Bach. Three cantatas (two not previously familiar in Carmel), The Musical Offering (originally tendered to Frederick the Great) and all sorts of solo and chamber music abound.
Last Sunday's St. Matthew achieved an ideal balance between Megill's polished and transparent chorale, a remodeled orchestra of almost completely Baroque instruments and Weil's command of tempi, balances and details. All came together with greater clarity and narrative purpose than has often been the case in the past. Space for personal expression fell largely to the solo vocal quartet. Among them, baritone Sanford Sylvan set the finest example of power, tonal color, dynamic range and individual inflection. Tenor Thomas Cooley presented a more theatrical character, using spinto for extra punch. Mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell sustained warmth and color. Soprano Kendra Colton, with the narrowest dynamic range, gave her arias a clear consistency and solid professionalism.Tenor Alan Bennett, as the indefatigable "evangelist," made that nonstop task seem easy, clear of tone, but too often with masked consonants. Instrumental solos further enriched the arias.
Leaving the festival with Weil will be concertmaster Wallfisch and several of the "family" of solo singers, including Bennett, Colton, Russell, Cooley and Sylvan. Staying put are Megill and his fabulous chorale, which has to be a great comfort to Goodwin, who is expected to attend the repeat performances this week.
This performance of the St. Matthew Passion will be broadcast on KUSP on Aug. 26.
THE ST. MATTHEW PASSION repeats Sunday, July 25, at 2:30pm at Sunset Center Theatre, San Carlos and Ninth streets, Carmel. Tickets are $48–$68 at www.bachfestival.org.
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