David Swenberg & Geoffrey Silver
One of the delights about going to Carmel Bach Festival concerts is that you can be surprised by what you get. The names of the concerts are often not very informative, although they usually make sense afterwards. Tuesday’s Foyer Concert “Occupy 1720” is a case in point. It was not on my original list of concerts I wanted to see, as the name, culturally relevant as it is, did not grab me, and I did not recognize any of the pieces listed on the program. However, as I looked more closely at which performers were involved, I decided it was worth attending. That turned out to be an excellent decision, as the presentation was engaging and entertaining from start to finish.
Lutenist Daniel Swenberg put together a collection of instrumental and vocal works from the early 18th century that were topical, and took us through some of the major social issues of the day. It began with music related to the Spanish war of succession and its economic aftermath that resulted in a huge stock bubble and consequent collapse. Mr. Swenberg functioned as a narrator of sorts, giving the audience just enough background to make sense of the music, seasoned with amusing asides.
Mr. Swenberg was joined by violinist Edwin Huizinga, viola da gambist William Skeen and singers Geoffrey Silver, Nell Snaidas, and David Vanderwaal. Everyone showed a keen sense of character and drama in addition to sublime musicianship. The program consisted of songs for solo singers and a smattering of instrumental interludes. The music came mostly from the popular tunes of the day, known as Broadside Ballads. The texts were printed on sheets of paper similar to a newspaper (the broadsides) with an indication as to which tune they should be sung to This is similar to what happens in many churches where popular hymn tunes have alternate texts.
These were normally sung in the coffee houses, which were the public forums of the day. Mr. Swenberg described them as a combination of Starbucks and Fox News. The texts are full of satire, humor, sarcasm and political commentary, and this was all brought out by the skillful artistry of the singers. The tunes included the highly popular Lillibulero and Stingo, but the one that modern listeners would all know was Greensleeves, to which Mr. Silver sang a text entitled “Mat’s Peace” with instrumental interludes from the famous “Greensleeves to a Ground.”
The diction was impeccable, and we could understand every word, which was critical as these selections are all text driven. It was interesting to contrast the sounds of the different singers. Mr. Silver has a gorgeous, lyrical tenor that never seems strained, while Mr. Vanderwaal has a thrillingly dramatic tone quality. Ms. Snaidas has a lovely voice, and sings with grace throughout her range, staying resonant without losing the text. All three sang with emotion, meaning, and just the right amount of panache. This carried over to the pieces in which they were not featured, remaining in character the whole time.
The instrumentalists were superb as well. Mr. Huizinga played in a fiddle style with almost no vibrato. I noticed with some interest that he was using his mute to keep from dominating the other, softer instruments. Mr. Swenberg switched between baroque lute and the long necked theorbo, and was occasionally joined by Ms. Snaidas on the small Renaissance guitar. Mr. Skeen performed some amazing pyrotechnics on the gamba, including going into “thumb” position to access notes at the very end of the fingerboard. This is almost unheard of on viola da gamba. Each of the instruments played sensitively and in a collaborative manner. The interplay between them added to the drama of the concert, and made them part of the action instead of being merely accompanists.
There was one piece that did not really fit the theme, other than being a representative of some of the more “serious” music of the day that was offered as kind of palate cleanser. It is a work that has confused Bach scholars for some time, but recent scholarship has cleared that up. The Suite in A major, BWV 1025 turns out originally to be a lute solo by Silvious Leopold Weiss to which Bach decided to add a violin part. Mr. Swenberg played it solo at first, and then had Mr. Huizinga and Mr. Skeen join in with the Bach additions on the repeat. It was a fascinating look inside the mind of the great composer.
This was a concert that could be enjoyed by everyone, and it is disappointing that there were quite a few empty seats. The small venue concerts at the Carmel Bach Festival are routinely top notch. They are worth attending even if the name seems inscrutable.