Carmel Bach Festival 2018 — Monday Chamber Concerts

Monday Chamber Concerts at the Bach Festival

The large orchestra and chorus concerts of the Carmel Bach Festival at Sunset Center get all the glory. Or, so I thought, until attending the chamber recitals offered on Monday, July 16. It turns out these recitals are playing to capacity audiences, people eager to hear smaller musical forces in intimate settings. Having enjoyed many daytime Bach Fest activities in the past, I decided to gorge myself with all three recitals today. All of them will be repeated again on Monday, July 23.

Organist Andrew Arthur

Fortified with an abundant breakfast at The Barnyard, the first stop was at the nearby Carmel Mission Basilica to hear Andrew Arthur perform an all-Bach program on the resident Casavant Frères organ built in 1986. Andrew Arthur is the principal keyboardist at the Bach Festival, and also director of music at Trinity Hall in Cambridge, England.

The interior of the Mission becomes an effective resonator as the listener is enveloped in the warm sound of the organ. And if one enjoys the tuneful meanderings of a Bach melody or fugal theme, this organ has two keyboards for the hands, and a pedal board operated by the feet, providing three distinct lines to listen to. That explains why a solo organ recital is listed as one of the many chamber music recitals. The organ is a trio already!

Arthur’s program included large works such as Prelude & Fugue in A Minor and the Fantasia & Fugue in G minor, and the Concerto in D Minor, transcribed from a concerto for two violins by Vivaldi. Four chorale preludes completed the program. Since the performer has hundreds of choices to make regarding which pipes will connect at which moment to the keyboard, those choices are made well in advance. This is called registration. Arthur’s registration provided clear expression of the melodic forces. In the four chorale preludes from the Leipzig Manuscript, the variety of registration was vivid, from grandiose statements to darkly quiet. But the scariest sounds were the lowest pipes that had more rumble that actual pitch.

Foyer Concert – Karina Schmitz & Simon Martyn-Ellis

Next, I found my way to Sunset Center Foyer to await the next event, the duo recital of Karina Schmitz, viola and Simon Martyn-Ellis, guitar. A program of bowed viola with plucked lute and guitar was the perfect palate cleanser to the organ concert. And talk about intimate! These are the quietest instruments of their type, with soft and expressive sound, each complimenting the other.

The viola is seldom a soloist instrument, as Ms. Schmitz explained why the three pieces on her program are all transcriptions from other instruments. Their performance of Bach’s flute sonata BWV 1034 sounded as if it were written for viola and lute. The lute, or theorbo, is an impressive looking instrument with eight strings plus another six strings, which resonate sympathetically, without playing on them. It was an effective replacement of the harpsichord in the original scoring. Schmitz plays Bach with a Baroque setup and bow. She switched to a modern instrument for the balance of the program of music by Schubert and Falla. Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata lies well for the viola, and the originally spare piano writing transfers easily to the guitar. The Arpeggione was a short-lived experiment in what is referred to as an instrument resembling a “bowed guitar” that Schubert was interested in. Mr. Martyn-Ellis played a 19th century style instrument, similar to but smaller than the modern classical guitar. The performance was noted for clean playing and superb ensemble. Perhaps it helps that the performers are happily married and have performed this music often.

The viola is the only instrument of the violin family that is still in search of perfect proportions in its construction. Ms. Schmitz performs on a 1987 Hiroshi Iizuka viola made in Philadelphia. The upper bouts show an interesting variation in design that probably facilitates playing in the upper positions.

The program concluded with Seven Spanish Folksongs by Manuel de Falla, originally for voice and piano. The piano part is written to reflect Spanish guitar styles, so the transcription to guitar sounds natural. The songs reflect Spanish styles from different regions, and were played here with distinct characteristics. But some of the unique Spanish flavors were underplayed, lacking emphasis on the little arabesque flourishes. The lullaby “Nana” was warm and soothing, but only the final “Polo” opened the restraints and let loose with flamenco abandon.

Bach Cantatas at All Saints’ Church

It was a leisurely stroll to the next recital at All Saints Church, a program of Bach Cantatas. A small ensemble accompanied the marvelous vocal quartet of Mhairi Lawson, soprano, Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano, Thomas Cooley, tenor, and John Brancy, bass. Cantata 154 opens with a tenor aria lamenting the absence of Jesus. Thomas Cooley caught everyone’s attention from the beginning with highly dramatic statements, especially at the words “O word of thunder in my ears” while the lower strings created a thunderous setting. Meg Bragle’s aria (“Jesus, let me find you”) features a pair of oboes d’amore, pitched slightly lower than the Baroque oboe, and with a darker sound. It was a lovely combination. The same gentle sound accompanied the duet for alto and tenor. The bass arioso of John Brancy sounded firm and solid. The soprano voice appears only in the two chorales.

The oboes appear again in Cantata 97, joining the strings and continuo for the opening chorale “In allen meinen Taten” (In all my deeds) and in the later soprano aria. Very often the arias by Bach feature a solo instrument or two, which are given challenging virtuoso passages. The bass aria has a cello obbligato, cleanly articulated by Paul Dwyer, while the violin, played by Cristina Zacharias, is the instrument that joins the tenor in his aria. Special mention should point out the expert oboe playing by Gonzalo Ruiz and Stephen Bard. Dongsok Shin used a small organ for the continuo. Cynthia Black, viola, and Jordan Frazier, bass completed the ensemble.

Between the two cantatas on the program was a trio sonata by Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a probable student of Bach. The work was attributed until recently to Bach, and features two violins and continuo, played by Cristina Zacharias and Marika Holmqvist, violins, Paul Dwyer, cello, and Dongsok Shin, harpsichord.

Each of the three venues for the Monday recitals has a unique acoustic. At the Mission, the space fills with glorious organ sounds. Listeners almost feel as if they are inside the instrument. The Sunset Foyer is perfect for the most intimate sounds, with just the right resonance. The wooden interior of All Saints Church is a wonderful place to hear chamber music, though voices need to pay special attention to their projection. This is not the first time noted that some singers project in All Saints as if in a large hall. Hopefully when this program repeats next week the vocal soloists will have a better balance.

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