The first week of this year’s Carmel Bach Festival ended with a bang with the presentation of “Concert Fantastique.” Artistic director Paul Goodwin led the Festival Orchestra through an audience pleasing selection of rousing French works from the late Baroque through the early 20th century. The word that continually came to mind during the evening was “big.” There were aspects of all the pieces that were bigger than life, bordering occasionally on the bombastic, and I use that term completely non-pejoratively.
The first offering was a suite of dances from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s late opera Les Boréades, which never got further than the rehearsal stage during the composer’s lifetime. In fact, the opera was never fully mounted until the 1980’s. The music is understandably quite theatrical, and the nine movements were each quite different from each other in style and approach. Rameau is often credited with being the first composer to bring the clarinet into the orchestra, and clarinetists Ginger Kroft and Erin Finkelstein truly made those parts sing. Perhaps the most fun part of the suite was towards the middle when Kevin Neuhoff started cranking a bizarre device that turned out to be a wind machine.
It was striking how different the orchestra sounded in this Baroque piece from the Tuesday night offerings. There was a much bigger sound, and almost a Romantic quality to the performance. Perhaps this was due to the theatrical origin of it, which allows for a more over-the-top approach than music that was designed to be used as part of a church service. In any event, the audience was delighted, and gave all concerned a rousing ovation.
Next up was Maurice Ravel’s well-known Le Tombeau de Couperin. This was an inspired choice, in that it was inspired by the French music of the Baroque era, but completely contrasted with it as well. With Ravel we have a whole new tonal universe. Whereas the Rameau was composed at a time that tonal music as we know it was first starting to take hold, Ravel’s work comes from a time that that system was being pushed to its limits.
Both works are collections of dances, but the similarities do not go much further. Not only are the harmonies much more complex, but the colors inherent in the different instruments of the orchestra are used in a seemingly infinite variety of ways. Goodwin was able to shape the music beautifully, carefully guiding the musicians through the entire dynamic range from the very soft to the very loud. As in the Rameau, there was a contrast between each of the movements, and the closing Rigaudon had a spontaneity and playfulness to it that was exciting and energetic.
The program took its name from the last work of the evening, Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. The presentation was flawless. This is one of the great works in all of music history. If you are not familiar with it, you might want to click through to read about it. It calls for a very large orchestra (including nine double basses!) – bigger than what can fit on the stage at Sunset Auditorium. Still, Goodwin brought in everyone he could, and I doubt if there was an empty square inch anywhere.
Goodwin did his best to approximate the sounds that Berlioz would have heard, using natural trumpets as well as valve cornets, which have quite different sound and articulation qualities. Robert Farley, Kathryn Adduci and Leonard Ott did a fantastic job of bringing out the musicality of these difficult instruments. (As a side note, these same musicians were incredible in the Bach cantata during Wednesday night’s concert in the Mission). The four horn players were on natural instruments as well. I was pedantically disappointed that he did not bring in a serpent for the Dies Irae motif in the last movement, as that would have been a hoot, but the modern instruments did just fine.
The extra players allowed Goodwin to exploit the dynamic range of the music even more than in the Ravel. This was evident throughout all five movements, but particularly noticeable in the middle movement called “The Scene in the Fields.” It begins with a call and response between the English horn and the oboe, played in a hauntingly beautiful fashion by Ellen Sherman and Gonzalo Ruiz. This is eventually underlaid almost imperceptibly by all six violas with a pianissimo tremolo that took one’s breath away. Violas rarely get a moment to shine, and this section clearly demonstrated what a deep, rich sound they can have. When the English horn returns with its shepherd song at the end of the movement, the strains are punctuated by the sound of thunder as represented by the timpani. Again, the joint rolls by the two players began as softly as you can imagine, gradually building to a dramatic and forceful peak before once again fading to nothing.
The full brass section also had a chance to show what it was capable of, with a full complement of horns, trumpets, cornets, trombones and even a tuba. They played powerfully yet with complete control, never blatting or sounding unpleasant. It was just a rich, vibrant sound that filled the hall. By the time the work reached its climax in the “Witches’ Sabbath,” every musician in the orchestra was playing all out for a rousing end to the evening, and the audience rose immediately as the last note was sounding to provide a well-deserved standing ovation.
It is concerts such as this that are a real reminder of how pale an experience recorded music is to hearing it live. The sensory experience of a full symphony orchestra is beyond compare, and cannot be reproduced electronically. It is similar to the difference you get between seeing a picture of Half Dome and actually looking up at it from the floor of Yosemite Valley. We are blessed to be able to experience such high quality, live music in our community.