Flow and Design

The Carmel Bach Festival is steeped in tradition—2012 is its 75th summer season—but this year one of its most brilliant events is a concert entitled “Baroque to Bluegrass,” featuring the astonishing husband-and-wife mandolin duo Caterina Lichtenberg and Mike Marshall.  If you are reading this before Thursday, July 26th and if you are the type of person who loves the full range of musical expression, from tender melodies to foot-stomping joy, then I highly suggest you stop what you’re doing right now and contact the Festival ticket office.  There may be a ticket left.

Or the concert may be sold out, which would be understandable, but also a shame for those left outside.  I wish every person who ever said they didn’t care for classical music could attend this concert.  They would discover an essential reason why some music is so satisfying and enduring.  It’s all about flow and design.  Baroque and bluegrass composers (as well as some jazz composers) create simple or elaborate structural designs—pulsing rhythms, skeins of harmony—over and around and through which they can pour their melodic ideas.  In the sensitive and dexterous hands of Lichtenberg and Marshall, backed by a fabulous small ensemble of core Festival musicians, all the works on the program, whether by Johann Sebastian Bach or a Brazilian jazzman or Bill Monroe, seemed to emanate from a deep well of musical spirit.  It was one of the most thrilling concerts I have ever attended.

Indeed, this year’s Bach Festival has thus far been richly satisfying, the best in years.  The opening night performance of the B-Minor Mass was powerfully conceived.  Now in his second year as the Festival’s Music Director, Paul Goodwin, from England (photo above), has a more nuanced approach to tempi and dynamics than his predecessor, Bruno Weil, who in my opinion tended to rush the music.  Goodwin allows phrases to unfold and curl like waves; the music feels organic.  Nowhere was this more felt than in the Mass’s always-stunning concluding chorus, “Dona nobis pacem” (Give us peace), in which the voices rise upward, with each fugal layer like the opening of a fan.  This is music with its feet rooted to the earth and reaching to the highest place in heaven it can imagine.

Another highlight was the Monday afternoon performance of Schubert’s “Winterreise,” featuring the superb Canadian baritone Alexander Dobson.  This treasured song cycle, a meditation on loss, loneliness, and the passing of time, is scored for voice and piano, but Dobson performed it with a string quintet, in a transcription by his friend and fellow Canadian Harold Birston.  In the original piano version, the music has a somewhat close and clustered quality, suggesting the prison of the poet-narrator’s unhappy mind.  The effect of the string quintet was to create a more spacious, enlarged perspective: one saw more clearly the poet move through the landscape of his emotions.  Here, too, the soloist was backed by some of the Festival’s finest musicians (several of whom were also on stage for the bluegrass concert).

The Festival ends Saturday, July 28.  Two remaining concerts I am especially excited to attend are “Twilight Bach,” at the San Carlos Cathedral, in Monterey, on Thursday, July 25 at 5 pm; and “Viennese Matinée Concertante,” at Sunset Center, Saturday at 11 am.  “Twilight Bach” features two works by Bach, his Orchestral Suite in C Major and his Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, in D Major, as well as three Purcell songs, performed by counter-tenor Robin Blaze.  Blaze was a featured soloist in the opening weekend's concerts.  His beautiful voice has a bell-like purity, with an occasional forced quality of urgency that detracts; I’ve been listening to his gorgeous recording of English songs that I purchased at Sunset Center’s temporary (and quite wonderful) “Bach Boutique,” and am looking forward to hearing his Purcell in the resonant space of the cathedral.

The “Viennese Matinée Concertante” offers some peppy music by Mozart and by Mozart’s father Leopold.  Both concerts feature violinist Emlyn Ngai, one of my Festival favorites, whose pre-Festival recital at the Church in the Forest, with keyboardist Yuko Tanaka, was a winner.

For information about remaining Carmel Bach Festival concerts and ticket availability, contact the Festival office at (831) 624-1521, or visit the Festival’s website.