Bach, By The Sea, Rubs Shoulders With Varied Fare

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The Carmel Bach Festival presented Bach's 'St. John Passion' at the Gothic-arched Sunset Center Theater.
The Carmel Bach Festival presented Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’ at the Gothic-arched Sunset Center Theater.

By Richard S. Ginell

CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, Calif. – When the 78th Carmel Bach Festival opened July 18, temperatures were in the 80s on the Monterey Peninsula and the air was muggy from a recent visit by the remnants of Hurricane Dolores. That’s highly abnormal here, for tree-shaded Carmel is usually a cool oasis for those who loathe summer heat. Fortunately, the natural air conditioner better known as  the Pacific Ocean kicked in late Monday afternoon, and longtime visitors to this venerable California festival started to feel more at home.

Dashon Burton sang role of Jesus in 'St. John Passion.'
Dashon Burton sang role of Jesus in ‘St. John Passion.’

Carmel Bach has been around since 1935, and, except for a three-year hiatus during World War II, has managed to keep going ever since. Tenor and current Carmel Bach dramaturge David Gordon’s  informative new book Carmel Impresarios  (Lucky Valley Press) reveals that the event was originally envisioned as a Mozart festival but turned to J. S. Bach because 1935 was an anniversary year (his 250th birthday); it wasn’t designated as an ongoing Bach festival until the following year.

Thus, the festival encompasses the entire history of the post-World War II Baroque revival, though in practice Carmel Bach has taken its time over the years to catch up with the latest trends and research. Which is not surprising, in a way, for a town that still quaintly and obstinately lacks traffic lights and easily-readable street signs.

It must be a congenial place to work, for Carmel Bach’s music directors tend to stick around for a long time. Gastone Usigli was the conductor from 1938 until his death in 1956; Sandor Salgo took over and kept at it until 1991. His successor, Bruno Weil, lasted for 19 seasons, until 2010, after which the current director, the British conductor Paul Goodwin, took over. Goodwin has a reputation as a period-performance maven, but his discography shows a healthy eclecticism stretching well into the 20th century, and he has widened the scope and range of Carmel Bach’s programming, even injecting a playful element now and then. This year, the theme is “Bach, Bohemia and Beyond,” which gives Goodwin carte blanche to throw some Dvořák, Bartók, Zelenka, and even Ligeti into the mix, with old Herr Bach as the anchor, as always.

Carmel's 718-seat Sunset Center Theater held J.S. Bach's 'St. John Passion.' (Richard Ginnell)
Sunset Center Theater held J.S. Bach’s ‘St. John Passion.’ (Richard S.  Ginnell)

On opening weekend, Goodwin revisited the piece with which he began his Carmel tenure, Bach’s St. John Passion. St. John was first done here in 1950 in a heavily-cut version in English; not until 1958 under Salgo did the festival present a “complete” version, though still in English. Goodwin put his own stamp on the St. John in 2011 with a staged production of the conventional version featuring the singers in street clothes. But on Sunday afternoon, in the 718-seat, Gothic-arched Sunset Center Theater, he went in an entirely different direction, returning to a concert performance format but, more intriguingly, choosing the rarely-performed 1725 version.

Yes, there’s a big difference. Instead of the brooding opening chorale built on mesmerizing pedal points, Bach substituted another, more joyful chorale (“O Mench, bewein dein Sünde groß”) which somehow does not make as vivid an impression. Bach might have thought so, too, for he deleted the chorale from later editions and inserted it deep into the St. Matthew Passion. The concluding chorale was switched from the terse, benedictory original to a longer, more elaborate and showy finale (also deleted later) with a proper Amen at the close (thankfully, 1725 retains the great, penultimate chorale “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine”). There are also three additional alternate arias, but it is the new opening and closing chorales that hit you with the biggest shock.

Carmel Bach Festival opened with 'St. John Passion.'
Carmel Bach Festival opened with ‘St. John Passion.’

Whatever the edition, the performance of St. John was a solid one, catching more and more fire as it progressed. Goodwin enforced lively but not overly driven tempos attached to a firmly rhythmic base, and though there was a sprinkling of baroque instruments in the ensemble and some period-performance attacks and such, the overall sound of the festival orchestra was predominantly modern. The vocal soloists were uniformly excellent, led by Roomful of Teeth’s Dashon Burton’s commanding and compassionate bass-baritone in the role of Jesus and tenor Thomas Cooley’s fervent portrayal of the Evangelist. The 30-voice Chorale was in top form throughout.

On Monday afternoon, Carmel Bach moved over to the nearby smaller, wood-planked, vaulted-ceiling All-Saints Church for a chamber program under the umbrella title “Bach and Dresden.” Now the period instruments came out in full force, yet this time, as in the St. John performance, I noticed a definite upgrading of instrumental technical standards from my last visit to Carmel three years ago. Peter Harvey’s warm, resonant baritone comfortably took on Bach’s Cantata No. 158, Zelenka’s Salve Regina, and a recitative and aria from Johann Adolphe Hasse’s Italian-flavored I Pellegrini al Sepolcro di nostro Signore, and Gonzalo X. Ruiz gave a fluid account of Bach’s Concerto, BWV 1053R,on baroque oboe.

That evening, back at the Sunset Center, Carmel Bach concertmaster Peter Hanson put together what he said was “the largest ensemble ever to appear on a Monday night” — all strings — for a program spanning three centuries in substance and style. The instruments were modern yet predominantly strung with gut strings; all but the cellos stood while performing. They defiantly performed the Ricercar a 6 from Bach’s Musical Offering in a manner that went halfway down the road back to Leopold Stokowski — with multiple instruments per part, a slow pace, and a lush, satisfying overall tone quality. (Referring to his baroque violin, Hanson quipped, “It’s good to let go of it, do it all wrong!”) Bartók’s wonderful yet tricky Divertimento for Strings couldn’t be easy to perform without a conductor directing traffic, but the musicians managed, pulling it off with cohesion, bite, and thrust. Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings was persuasive, nuanced, and properly bucolic, ultimately getting into the swing of the Waltz and Finale, and — with the Bohemia theme somewhat in mind — Hanson added his own string transcription of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which set off some knowing chuckles in the hall.

Carmel Bach Festival music director Paul Goodwin conducted 'St. John Passion.'
Festival music director Paul Goodwin conducted ‘St. John Passion’ and ‘The Magic Flute.’

Tuesday night, Carmel Bach put on a concert performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, with all of Schikaneder’s dialogue replaced by a few entertaining narrative links written and spoken by Gordon. Goodwin again presided, setting a generally speedy pace that propelled Act I along nicely yet seemed a bit too hurried in Sarastro’s two arias in Act II; this eloquent music needed room to breathe. Best in this cast were Harvey, an engaging Papageno who displayed a rather free way with the line; Clara Rottsolk’s at-times-impassioned Pamina; and Cooley’s forthright Tamino. There was minimal acting in front of the orchestra and perhaps a bit too liberal use of thunder sound effects. As an introduction to this unique, multi-layered piece of music theater, the performance would serve, but The Magic Flute’s depths would have to be savored elsewhere.

As per the Carmel Bach formula, all of these programs will be repeated on consecutive days a week later (St. John, July 26; Bach and Dresden and Bach, Bartók, and Dvořák July 27; The Magic Flute July 28). One program that is especially intriguing takes place at the Carmel Mission July 29, with Frank Martin’s Mass coupled with excerpts from Bruckner’s Mass No. 2 and Stravinsky’s Mass. On July 30, the Festival Orchestra polishes off five of the six Brandenburg Concertos, with the First Concerto saved for July 24 and 31, when it shares space with a commission from Benjamin Wallfisch (Margrave Interludes), Ligeti’s Concerto Romanesc, and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (talk about strange bedfellows). On July 25, there is a repeat of the opening-night concert, which features Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, Bach’s Wachet auf cantata, and Haydn’s Harmoniemesse in B-flat. There are many other chamber programs, organ recitals, and lectures scattered throughout the festival’s two-week span.

Finally, on August 1, a perennially useful festival tradition, Best of the Fest, reprises highlights from the festival lineup as a memory refresher or a tasting menu for those on the run who regrettably can’t spend more than a day here.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.