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Bach to Back

The real passion at this year's Carmel Bach Festival came from the works of Haydn and Beethoven

By Scott MacClelland

After this weekend, the 67th Carmel Bach Festival slips into history. Its passage will be remembered for various milestones, notably the new Chorale introduced by William Gray making his festival debut as associate conductor and choral director. Others, though already announced, remain to be implemented, primarily the installation of Jesse Read, principal bassoonist and recital director, as festival managing director to replace the retiring executive vice president Willem Wijnbergen. And, now in its second season at home in the dramatically renovated Sunset Center Theater, the festival has taken noticeable steps to improve the LARES sound enhancement system (though that sophisticated technology remains a work still in progress).

Music director Bruno Weil gave this season the title "Bach and Beyond," although that has been a theme of his tenure over all. Simply said, it represents Weil's ongoing interest in broadening the context of Bach's stature and influence by examining the composer's antecedents and those composers who in turn were influenced by his towering example. Weil himself prepared and conducted three works by Bach, two celebratory sacred cantatas and the great St. Matthew Passion. Otherwise, Weil's hands-on work included Stravinsky's Octet for Winds (structured of baroque and classical style procedures), symphonies by Christian Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, and an all-Mozart program of choral and vocal pieces.

What inspired the most animated and energized performances by Weil turned out to be his program of classical symphonies, heard on Tuesday nights. This is not only the style (most vividly portrayed in Haydn's Symphony no. 80 in D Minor and Beethoven's Symphony no. 4 in B-flat) in which Weil is most at home, but the basis for his international reputation. (He had a many-year contract to record the Haydn symphonies for Sony Classical when he was hired by the festival.) His Beethoven turned out to be a soaring, out-of-the-park home run, with the Haydn a close second and the Stravinsky hard on its heels (though most credit goes to the eight wind and brass players). The Mozart program consisted of youthful Salzburg-era pieces, none making deep expressive demands, plus the short, lovely Ave verum corpus. By comparison, his Bach performances were more workaday and impersonal, including a tepid St. Matthew, though executed memorably by his fine orchestra, instrumental and vocal soloists, and Chorale and chorus.

Among the vocal soloists, tenor Benjamin Butterfield sang with distinctive ardor and baritone Sanford Sylvan with uncommon musicianship and artistic authority (though he suffered a sidelining illness halfway through the festival). Others who distinguished themselves were soprano Kendra Colton, mezzo Sally Anne Russell, tenor Alan Bennett and, as knockout star coloratura in Mozart's Exsultate, Jubilate!, soprano Kirsten Blase.

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From the August 4-11, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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