Barbara Rose Shuler, Intermezzo: Bach Festival adapts in surreal times.

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After 27 months of musical deprivation, Carmel Bach Festival fans returned Saturday night to Sunset Center to savor the sonorities of Bach and Handel in person.  London-based maestro Paul Goodwin led this long-awaited opening night program, appropriately called “Reunion.”  The music flowed into the hall like liquid gold for parched ears.  A reunion, indeed.

Barbara Rose Shuler, Intermezzo: Bach Festival adapts in surreal times.
© Provided by Monterey Herald British concertmaster Peter Hanson and his rock star string band have gained a large following over the years at the Bach Festival. (Photo courtesy of Carmel Bach Festival)

The structure of the 84th Festival dramatically alters the familiar summertime lineup of big main concerts, multiple chamber music series, outdoor brass music, lectures, master classes, gala parties, special events, community engagement activities and music presented in locations all around the Monterey Peninsula.

This is the year of the unicorn Bach Festival, a rare historical event.  For the first time since its founding in 1935, the main musical fare is distilled into seven concert miniatures.  They are jewel-like programs, each an hour-long, and thoughtfully designed.

These programs represent the musical diversity and world-class talent of the traditional two-hour-plus programs of past Festivals but also honor safety protocols during the pandemic.  After attending three of these gems, it is clear to me that we are being gifted with something exceptional by these artists.  They are not only bringing live music back into our lives, they are also sculpting it anew for the moment we are living through.

For his opening night, Goodwin chose J. S. Bach’s motet BWV 226, The Spirit Gives Aid to our Weakness, written for the funeral service of the headmaster of the Thomas Church in Leipzig, where the composer worked much of his life.  The centerpiece of the concert is Handel’s spectacular tribute to the patron saint of music, Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day.

In her pre-concert talk, musicologist Karen Hiles suggests that this coupling of 300-year-old works reflects the disruptions, losses, and isolation we have been experiencing throughout the pandemic and that it also points the way to a hopeful future.  She says, “It’s a future that celebrates the power of music but also the power of listening to music together in community, which we haven’t been able to do.”

The Bach Festival’s new lute player, Adam Cockerham, told me that he recently performed with Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society where the audience was so thrilled to be together with the musicians again that they burst into applause before a note was played.   Such is the might of live music.

Bach, Handel and St Cecilia

The polyphonic richness of Bach’s double-chorus motet performed by the Festival orchestra and chorale proved at once calming and exhilarating, joyful yet tender, familiar yet new.

Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day is both a joyful glorification of music and an excellent showcase for the talents of the orchestra, chorale and vocal soloists.  Goodwin led an elegantly shaped account of this work.  Soprano Clara Rottsalk brought lyric beauty and effortlessness to her arias, even in the most challenging passages.  Tenor Thomas Cooley delivered exciting vocal fire, especially in his stentorian trumpet aria.  Solo turns by the trumpeters, flutist, organist, lutenist and others were a pure delight as were concertmaster Peter Hanson and the strings.  And the chorale, prepared by associate conductor Andrew Megill, is outstanding, as usual.

St. Cecilia was a fifth-century Christian martyr whose original story turns out to be somewhat at odds with her fame as a glorifier of harmony.  She ignored the music at her wedding, as she didn’t want to be married, turning away from it to “sing directly to God in her heart.”

A 15th-century vespers antiphon for her Feast Day left out the words “in her heart,” which led to a Renaissance revision of Cecilia as actually singing out loud and even playing the organ.  By Handel’s time, she was adored as a virtuoso performer and great appreciator of music.

For all the high-quality music-making, the realities of the pandemic give a strange flavor to the Festival, which takes place this season exclusively at Carmel’s Sunset Center.  The ensemble is smaller, with 47 orchestra members instead of the usual 60 plus and the chorale is down from 28 singers to 18. No heralding Tower brass music greets ticketholders on Sunset’s upper terrace.  No festive preparations were underway for the traditional outdoor opening night party after the concert.

In addition to masks, people must wear an orange wristband signifying proof of vaccination.  Pre-concert lectures now happen outside on the upper terrace, so dress warmly for these.  The Sunset Center concession booth closed over two ago so no beverages and nibbles are available.  And, truly, an autumnal Bach Festival that plays through Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos is a minor brain-bender for regulars used to concerts in July.

Nevertheless, Festival ticketholders express immense gratitude that the staff, board and musicians managed to pull together a 2021 Festival against daunting odds. An impressive accomplishment.

Mass in B Minor

Every year the Festival presents a major J.S. Bach masterwork, rotating between the two Passions, the Mass in B Minor, and occasionally the six cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio.  Sunday, Goodwin guided the ensemble through a stellar though smaller version of the Mass, which was described by its first publisher as “the greatest musical work of art of all times and nations.”

In his program notes for this performance, Allen Whear writes of Bach’s opus, “The music’s value in our culture and its proven ability to raise our spirits is beyond debate.”  Though we heard only the Kyrie and Gloria parts along with the final Dona Nobis Pacem, the spirit-raising quality remained fully present.

Gorgeous solos by chorale members included the Christe Eleison duet of sopranos Linda Lee Jones and Patricia Thompson, Laudamus by soprano Melanie Russell, the Domine Deus tenor and soprano duet with Chelsea Helm and Timothy Hodges, Qui sedes alto aria with Luthien Brackett, and Quoniam by bass Jonathan Woody.

Exceptional balance and unity of the choral sound along with these beautiful vocal solos and superb instrumental playing made this a luminous hour of Bach, a triumph for Goodwin, Megill and the ensemble.

Brandenburgs!  And Vivaldi

British concertmaster Peter Hanson and his rock star string band have gained a large following over the years at the Festival. Monday night’s Bach and Vivaldi concerto program pretty much defines Baroque player perfection.  In the 11 years of Hanson’s tenure as concertmaster, this program would be a pick for the desert island disk category, except, alas, there will be no disk.

Brandenburgs No. 3 and No.5 are juxtaposed with two brilliant concertos from Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico collection.  These four represent the crème de la crème of 18th-century instrumental music.

The Brandenburgs turned 300 years old this March, marking the gift of these spectacular masterpieces to the Margrave of Brandenburg.   Allen Whear in his pre-concert talk quipped, “Brandenburg is such a nice name.  Good thing it wasn’t the Margrave of Schleswig-Holstein.”  Whear also reminded his listeners about Bach’s appreciation of Vivaldi’s music and his transcriptions of the scores for different instruments.

Leading the way in Brandenburg No. 3 were Hanson, with violinists Edwin Huizinga and Patricia Ahern.  Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor for Two Violins features Hanson with Johanna Novom.  Hanson along with flutist Stephen Schultz and harpsichord virtuoso Dongsok Shin dazzle in Brandenburg No. 5.  Vivaldi’s Concerto in B Minor for Four Violins puts Hanson center stage with Cynthia Roberts, Carla Moore and Aniela Eddy.  Lutenist Adam Cockerham also lends his virtuoso skills to this program, playing a theorbo and Baroque guitar.

This ambrosial hour concluded with a spirited encore from Vivaldi’s Concerto Alla Rustica and the lively response of a grateful audience.  By the way, if you are buying a ticket for Monday’s program next week, do come early to enjoy Whear’s talk, which is followed by a delightful performance by the Bach Festival chorus led by assistant chorus conductor Brendan Barker.

Remember that you will be asked to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to join the audience in the hall and masks are required.  All seven of the main concerts are repeated the second week.  Also, tickets are available for a newly added daytime chamber music series.  The Bach Festival teams have mastered the art of adapting in surreal times.  Bravo!

For tickets and information call 624-1521 or visit the website at www.bachfestival.org.

Halloween with Ensemble Monterey

Ensemble Monterey is returning to live indoor concerts. “In Halloween – Be Afraid!” the orchestra will play a variety of Halloween music, mostly classical but with a few surprises thrown in. The short opera, “Dracula,” by David (Count) Del Tredici features soprano Lori Schulman.   More spooky music is on the program, including Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.  Masks and seat distancing are required. The concert takes place Saturday at 7 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church in Monterey.  For tickets see www.ensemblemonterey.org or call 831-333-1283.

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