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Bach for Another Round

Andrew Megill and Bruno Weil organize another masterful Carmel Bach Festival

By Scott MacClelland

THE OPENING weekend of the 71st Carmel Bach Festival offered a mighty feast in the form of the Festival namesake's Mass in B Minor and Cantata BWV 21, and Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem, the first of three performances each spread over as many weeks. The sprawling, two-hour Mass launched the annual celebration Saturday night, availing the all-professional Festival Chorale, a youthful and responsive force of 28 voices, recruited and trained by associate conductor Andrew Megill. For the occasion, Megill drew out five voices to begin various choral movements and sections, in the manner of a concerto grosso, the five as concertino to the tutti ripieno. This effect worked wonders in casting the choral tapestry into 3-D, and, according to Megill, it was a not-uncommon practice by Bach himself, especially when taking up a new post.

Under music director Bruno Weil, the great choral scenes of the Mass dominated, leaving the solo arias and duets and the lesser choral scenes on a more intimate plane. Giving the whole work an overall arching sinew is always challenging; Bach cobbled the Mass together from various of his earlier cantatas and only assembled it in the form we recognize at the end of his life. The hair-raising highlights of the Saturday performance were the opening Kyrie, the "Gloria" and "Cum Sancto Spiritu" from the Gloria section, and the "Et resurrexit" and "Et expecto resurrectionem" from the Credo section. The solo vocal quartet's most expressive moments were served up by mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell and, only in the second half, tenor Thomas Cooley and bass Sanford Sylvan.

Bach's early Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, which opened the Sunday matinee, exhibits unusual melodrama among the composer's sacred cantatas. Yet the performances by soprano Kendra Colton and bass Sanford Sylvan were coolly cautious. Only tenor Thomas Cooley gushed, suggesting that Bach was a lusty man of the world, not just a church mouse. Once again, the chorus was divided into concertino and tutti, especially effective in Sei nun wieder zufrieden where Bach sets an original part against an arrangement of a familiar old church chorale. Festival Chorus and Youth Chorus both participated, adding more colors to the combined choral force.

The Brahms Requiem set the emotional high point of the weekend in which Weil fully engaged every moment of the inspired symphonic score, emphasizing its choice of biblical texts without smoothing off its dramatic allusions to inevitable death. Soloists Kendra Colton and Sanford Sylvan rose to occasion while the combined Chorus and Chorale ranged from timorous intimacy to implacable authority.

THE CARMEL BACH FESTIVAL runs through Aug. 9 at various venues; see for details.

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