The chamber music recitals of the Carmel Bach Festival have always been a favorite of mine. An afternoon of chamber music in the intimate and cozy setting of Carmel Presbyterian Church is a real treat. As a nudge to the current celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of Carmel, the Tuesday recital featured music that has some relation to the town, the sea, and to the creative personalities that have passed through the area. Four vocal soloists were the main feature of the program, along with accompaniment of a string quartet and piano. Barbara Rose Shuler, long-time local radio personality, provided the continuity between performances with some background on the composers and poets.
Carmel was a magnet for writers and artists from its founding in 1905 with the arrival of poet and playwright George Sterling. Jack London and Robinson Jeffers soon discovered the beauty of the area. The first decade of the century also included the youngster John Steinbeck in Salinas. The Americana flavor of the concert was set at the top of the program with music by Aaron Copland in an arrangement for string quartet of excerpts from the 1949 movie The Red Pony, based on the 1933 story by John Steinbeck. Copland’s use of open harmonies and rhythmic syncopations are familiar sounds heard in works such as Appalachian Spring and Rodeo. This was an effective way to set the mood of the concert.
The composer Ernst Bacon was a frequent visitor to Carmel in the 1920s and 30s. He conducted the first Carmel Bach Festival concert in 1935 and was a good friend of Ansel Adams. Bacon had played the piano at Adams’ wedding in Carmel in 1928. Six selected songs by Bacon were performed by mezzo-soprano Kathleen Flynn. Delivered with a comfortably rich and resonant sound, the songs all make reference to water or to the sea, which has become a major thematic thread in this Festival season. The songs are on texts of Emily Dickinson and Robert Burns. The balance of the piano and voice was written so transparently that there was never a possibility of the piano being too loud, always a concern in vocal music. The piano was often used to comment upon the vocal line. Pianist Keenan Boswell provided discrete and skillful accompaniments throughout the concert.
As a participant in early Carmel history, Jack London was among the creative activity of the West Coast in the early years of the past century. His poem On George Sterling was read alone, without a musical setting. It helped to give the concert a sense of place.
Baritone Charles Wesley Evans offered five selections from Songs of Travel by Ralph Vaughan Williams on texts by Robert Louis Stevenson. The colorful texts were matched with Evans’ equally colorful sound. While many in the audience are following the words on the program handout, this listener was drawn toward the engaging sound of Evans’ voice. The songs combine the voice with thickly textured piano accompaniments, again skillfully handled by Mr. Boswell.
Three songs on texts of Robinson Jeffers were among many composed by Elliot Weisgarber. Narrator Shuler shared some personal recollections of Weisgarber, who lived in British Columbia and spent some time in Carmel. Soprano Estelí Gomez excelled at expressing the Jeffers poetic images in sound.
Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach of 1931 for baritone and string quartet closed the program, though not connected in any way with Carmel, continued the seaside theme on a text by Matthew Arnold published in 1867. David Newman was soloist with the quartet comprised of Naomi Guy and Elizabeth Girko, violins; Meg Eldridge, viola; and Timothy Roberts, cello.
As an encore, the full ensemble invited the audience to participate in singing The Abalone Song, attributed to George Sterling with additional verses contributed by Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, Ambrose Bierce, and undetermined others.
It was a delightful concert devoted to Carmel and the sea, far from the usual offerings at the Bach Festival. But the theme of nostalgia and history is pertinent to this 79th season that celebrates the centenary of Carmel-by-the-Sea.