Carmel Bach Festival – Community Concert at St Francis Xavier Church in Seaside

The Carmel Bach Festival may be over, however, one consolation is now that the withdrawal symptoms are starting to subside from there being no more of these glorious concerts to attend or visiting musicians to schmooze with and admire, there is still the opportunity to plan for next year, and part of that planning should include attending the Community Concert in Seaside with a friend or acquaintance who may have never been to a classical concert.

This often overlooked, free concert is an important performance, and offers an opportunity to assist the Festival with audience development. It could be argued that this yearly Community Concert in Seaside, which many regular Festival attenders have never attended, along with the Family Concerts (held not only at Sunset Center, but also at St. Francis Xavier Church, and at Ariel Theatrical in Salinas), are the two most important concerts of the Festival, in this regard.

This year marks a change in venue for this outreach concert, formerly held at the Oldemeyer Center since 1986. St. Francis Xavier Church on 1745 La Salle Avenue, also in Seaside, is the new location. Larger than the previous venue, St. Francis Xavier offers a spaciousness and beautiful acoustic that lends itself to the unamplified vocal and instrumental music that is a hallmark of the Carmel Bach Festival, as well as permanent pew-seating (bring your Mission concert cushion).

The concert was held at 6:30 pm on Thursday evening, July 20, 2017. Looking around the audience, there were a few familiar faces from the concerts in Carmel, as well as those who are regular Community Concert-goers. The program can be found on page 186 of the Festival program books, and further information about the history of the concert series is found on page 66, in the Community Engagement section.

The varied instrumental and vocal program kicked off with Mozart: two lively movements, the Allegro and Presto from Divertimento No. 3 in F major (also known as Salzburg Symphony No. 3), was played by the string quartet musicians Elizabeth Stoppels Girko and Ann Kaefer Duggan, violin, Meg Eldridge, viola, and Paul Rhodes, cello. A perfect choice with which to begin.

Then, the eight CBF Chorale singers, who have been doing this particular concert together for years, joined the program with Sing Joyfully by William Byrd (1543-1623). Sopranos Linda Lee Jones and Rebecca Mariman, mezzo-sopranos Alyson Harvey and Alice Kirwan Murray, tenors Stephen Sands and Tim Hodges, and baritones Charles Wesley Evans and Paul Speiser have a tight and polished sound that fills the church wonderfully! Led by Ms. Murray, Sing Joyfully was performed a cappella, and even with beautiful complex vocal polyphony, it was immediately accessible to the ear, and was another perfect choice for this program.

Musica Celestis and Scherzo by Aaron Jay Kernis (1960- ) followed. Mr. Rhodes explained that there were three parts to the work: polyrhythmic atonal cluster-like sections with syncopations, a bucolic middle section, then a reprise of the beginning, leading to the “celestial ending.” This was a bold choice for this concert, but the aim to present a variety of music, while not staying with any one style for too long, was achieved.

During the transition to the next piece, a requisite Bach chorale, Ms. Girko spoke about the different violin bows used for earlier music, versus the bows used for more modern music, and then made the switch to a baroque bow for Lobet den Herrn, BWV 230 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Again, only eight singers and four string players, but they filled the space with a full sound, and glorified the church’s cavernous acoustics.

The Road Home, based on hymn-tune Prospect, found in the 1835 Southern Harmony hymnal, was arranged by Stephen Paulus (1949-2014). Led by Mr. Evans, the Chorale singers had the audience in the palm of their hands with the familiar pentatonic hymn melody. Finally, there was a palpable relaxation and the audience connection to this piece seemed to speak to the whole room. Composer Paulus’ body of works includes 13 operas, including his most well-known The Postman Always Rings Twice (1982), 55 orchestral works, and over 400 standalone choral works. This was truly a standout repertoire choice, and should be programed again, perhaps on a main concert, along with the subsequent, equally excellent choice, O What a Beautiful City, arranged by Shawn Kirchner (1970- ). The spiritual was originally arranged by Edward Boatner (1898-1981), and was another piece on the program where listeners were visibly absorbed in the music. This is what all musicians and performers strive for, to be able to convey what they are playing or singing to a receptive audience that able to sink into their own internal journey, while being moved by what they hear. A person seated next to me quietly sang along, joyous for something familiar and inspirational.

Samuel Barber’s (1910-1981) perennially poignant Adagio for Strings was written for orchestra in 1936, and premiered in 1938 by Toscanini at NBC Studio 8H, New York City. In 1967, Barber then created a special choral version of the piece, Agnus Dei, which was heard in this season’s CBF Tuesday night main concert, “From Bach to Bernstein.” For the Community Concert though, we heard the string quartet version, and the effect was no less powerful: as the intensity increased, people were moved, and by the climax, there was noticeable welling up of tears from some people. Far from a disinterested audience, this was a thoughtful, appreciative audience. This would be an excellent prospect to revisit in future Community Concerts, perhaps doing the instrumental version first, then reprising it as the vocal version later in the line-up. Hook, line, and sinker… pass the tissues, please.

Elegant a cappella arrangements of the jazz standards ‘Round Midnight by Thelonius Monk (1917-1982), and Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, by Duke Ellington (1899-1974), were beautiful and cheerful; the arrangements were provided by Western Wind, a professional choral group based in New York, to which some of the Chorale singers belong.

A most interesting addition to the program was a string quartet version of Radiohead’s Paranoid Android (1997). The Bach Festival doesn’t just play classical music, they also play arrangements of rock tunes! Those who knew the work were pleasantly surprised and laughed in amazement to hear what is now a modern rock standard, arranged for string quartet. Reminds one of Peter Hanson’s encore a couple of years back, his own orchestral arrangement of Bohemian Rhapsody, by the British rock group, Queen. After that Monday night concert was over and the aisles were filling with exiting patrons, several people were overheard asking of one another what that last piece had been; the landmark rock tune, unrecognizable to many classical concert-goers, was a brilliant inclusion, nonetheless.

Last on the program was another Shawn Kirchner arrangement, Unclouded Day, written in 1885 by preacher Josiah Kelley Alwood (1828-1909). The story goes that as he rode home on horseback one night from a debate with an Adventist minister, Rev. Alwood saw “a beautiful rainbow north by northwest against a dense black nimbus cloud. The sky was all perfectly clear except this dark cloud which covered about forty degrees of the horizon and extended about halfway to the zenith.” He was inspired by the sight, and wrote the hymn the next day. Rousing and upbeat, the concert ended on a bright note.

Analysis:

 In the same way that those who are church-minded are often encouraged to bring someone new to church with them, to expose the un-godly to salvation, I would argue that the same is true for the Community Concert in Seaside. I, myself, am a new convert to this concert, and can sympathize with the apprehension to cross city lines, giving up an evening of CBF magnificence at Sunset Center for what appears to be a variety show, but there are scores of the uninitiated in our very own midst to whom you, yourself, could be the one to expose to the glory of classical music. If 6:30 pm is really the preferred start time for this concert, then one could argue that its placement on the Festival schedule should not be made to conflict with a main concert at Sunset Center. Why not have the Thursday night main program start at 8:30 pm, as the Wednesday night Mission Concert does, instead of the usual 7:30?

I brought three new people to this free concert, and used it as an opportunity to talk with them about the pieces on the program, the composers, the musicians, the venue, the acoustics, and the rest of the Festival taking place in the Holy City, just over the hill… I mentioned the student discount tickets, the military discount tickets, the Youth and Family Package discount tickets, the annual Fourth of July ticket sale, the “Coffee with Bach” pay-what-you-can concert, the free Tower Music mini-concerts, the $11 Family Concert, the free pre-festival open rehearsals, and the Carmel Foundation discounts.

Armed with this information, and a tour of the program book, recommendations for main concerts and chamber concerts, and reassurances about dress, parking, seating, and encouragement to attend pre-concert lectures, my inductees were able to successfully transition over to a few CBF concerts in Carmel. It was work to help them understand what all the fuss is about over here, but this process is exactly what must be done, friend by friend, student by student, with family members or acquaintances, so that we can do our part to save the classical music environment, if you catch my drift.

You, too, can be an evangelist! This concert cannot simply be seen as a second-rate CBF offering to appease those who cannot afford to go; it must be strategically used to help build our regular audience and bring in the next generation of concert-goers. In addition to the goal of working towards sell-out concerts in Carmel, we must have the goal of filling the pews of more remote venues like St. Francis Xavier Church. So, make a list between now and next summer of who in your life you could specially-invite to the Community Concert in 2018, and do your best to help increase the fold by going with them, and making it fun. In sum, those who usually only attend the concerts in Carmel, are encouraged to branch out and make an effort to introduce new people to classical music through this excellent, gateway concert. They will thank you for it.

End

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