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Calling For Bach Up: Music director and conductor Bruno Weil in rehearsal.

Bach by the Beach

The Carmel Bach Festival kicks off its 68th season with a night of Johann and Ludwig

By Scott MacClelland

WITH THE THEME "Bach and Beyond," the 68th Carmel Bach Festival took flight Saturday night with an arcane program of Bach and Beethoven. With one exception, the opening-night audience at Sunset Center heard works never before performed there. These included two "chorale" cantatas and Beethoven's Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II. Although music director/conductor Bruno Weil demonstrates a strong disposition in favor of Haydn and Beethoven, he deserves credit for reviving obscure Bach cantatas that wander far afield from the more popular few favored by his predecessor, Sandor Salgo.

Though Beethoven wrote the cantata at age 19, he never saw it produced. It only came to light at an auction of his papers in 1884. As Johannes Brahms then observed, "It is Beethoven, through and through." The 35-minute work's opening and closing choruses, lamenting the death of the "enlightenment" emperor, presage the gloom of Florestan's dungeon in Fidelio—likewise the dramatic recitative and heroic bass aria, sung earnestly by baritone Michael Dean, and the oboe obbligato that covers the first part of the extensive soprano scena that was soprano Elspeth Franks' official festival debut. Making an impressive and sympathetic impact, Franks plainly had already turned heads in the festival's Adams master classes of the past two seasons. Four soloists drawn from the combined choirs acquitted themselves with fine style and presence.

In the first of the two Bach cantatas, BWV 27, the chorus worries, "Who knows how near my end?" When death is no longer uncertain, an innocent 6/8-meter lullaby, sung sweetly by mezzo Sally-Anne Russell, welcomes it. Michael Dean's bass aria, "Gute nacht," is interrupted by orchestral outbursts on "Farewell, worldly tumult." For the final chorale, Bach simply revived the harmonization by his Leipzig predecessor, Johann Rosenmueller.

The second cantata, BWV 41, celebrates the New Year of 1725 with pealing trumpets and oboes and thundering kettledrums. Initially, the chorale tune, in disembodied long phrases sung by the chorus sopranos, is floated above a riotous and festive display. While solo soprano Kendra Colton had a brief recitative in the first cantata, she was featured in a full da capo aria in the second, and fell considerably short of her best work of past appearances. Her technique sounded out of shape, without confidence, and lacked both authority and presence. Tenor Ben Butterfield got his best moment, nicely detailed, in the aria Woferne du den edlen Frieden.

The one familiar piece on display was Bach's Suite in B Minor for flute and strings, BWV 1067, featuring Kimberly Reighley, whose lovely but low-key flute work was run circles around by the glitzier playing of concertmaster Elizabeth Wallfisch. Only in the florid obbligato in the middle of the Polonaise, when the main tune is taken up in the continuo, did Reighley truly shine.

The Carmel Bach Festival offers both repeated programs and one-off recital concerts at the Sunset Center and other venues through Aug. 6. Repeating highlights include the Bach and Beethoven program Saturday (July 23 and 30), Bach's Mass in B Minor and six Brandenburg concertos, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610. See www.bachfestival.org for details.

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From the July 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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