Carmel Bach Fest Goes Well Beyond Namesake’s Music

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Carmel Bach Festival associate conductor Andrew Megill led choral concerts in the Carmel Mission Basilica.
Carmel Bach Festival associate conductor Andrew Megill led choral concerts in the Carmel Mission Basilica.
By Richard S. Ginell

CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, Calif. — It’s been a scorchingly hot July across the country, and even the chilly, foggy, artsy, swanky, obstinately anti-urban town of Carmel-by-the-Sea was not entirely sheltered from its effects, as the billowing smoke from an advancing wildfire north of Big Sur loomed. But the smoke was still far away as the 79th Carmel Bach Festival neared the close of its first week, during which the programming became more and more creative.

Between concerts, the beach beckons.
Between concerts, the beach beckons.

Carmel Bach artistic director Paul Goodwin and associate conductor Andrew Megill have increasingly been throwing in things that you wouldn’t associate with an event that calls itself a Bach festival and making everything fit and interact. Last year, concertmaster Peter Hanson slipped in his own transcription of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a tagline for a performance of the Dvořák Serenade for Strings, and Megill put together a choral program of excerpts from masses that ranged from Bruckner to Stravinsky and Frank Martin. This year, Megill’s July 20 choral program again provided some of the festival’s cleverest combinations of material — this time tying everything securely to the gravitational force of the festival, J. S. Bach.

While most of Carmel Bach’s main concerts are held in the Gothic-arched Sunset Center a few steps away from the center of town, Megill’s choral events take place in the historic Carmel Mission Basilica a bit further south, and there we were immersed in a different world. The music began outside, in the courtyard, with Tower Music, a Carmel Bach tradition that precedes many of the concerts in which a small group of brass players serenade early-birds with short, mostly obscure selections of the very old and very new. There was a processional at the beginning of the concert and a recessional at the end, with choristers filing in and out of the room and red-clad attendants bearing candles in serene contemplation.

The concert itself was devoted to making several points on the same theme — the seemingly limitless extent of Bach’s influence throughout the centuries with no regard for stylistic boundaries. The words of Bach’s chorale “Komm, süsser Tod” would be stretched out to the breaking point in the late Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt’s Immortal Bach, the pitches sustained and bent in a Ligeti-like manner. Both Bach and Nystedt were performed back to back with the festival chorus standing in front and behind the audience for an enveloping surround-sound effect. Divided into five choirs, the voices produced a gloriously golden choral sound within the long, narrow basilica; no wonder they hold these concerts there, rather than downtown.

The most radical point, to my mind, was made when Bach was used to form a sandwich around a totem of American popular culture. First, Megill led his choir in a brief chorale from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Then, after a brief interlude on the positiv organ, he launched into a lovely, slightly re-harmonized choral arrangement of — yes — Paul Simon’s 1973 song “American Tune,” which is based on the same melody as the Bach chorale.

Imagine that — a song called “American Tune” that uses a German tune. At first, Simon did not give credit to Bach on the LP cover of There Goes Rhymin’ Simon — the album on which “American Tune” first surfaced — but it so happens that Bach himself borrowed (stole?) the tune from a circa-1600 love song by Hans Leo Hassler. Megill followed “American Tune” with another Bach chorale that uses the same tune yet again, this time from St. Matthew Passion.

We could use more imaginatively sequenced music lessons like these in our concert life, tearing down boundaries and showing that it’s all one big world of music. Moreover, Simon’s Watergate-era lyric evoking the weariness of those wondering what had happened to this country still resonates.

Artistic director Paul Goodwin led a Sunset Center concert linking Bach and Mendelssohn.
Paul Goodwin led a Sunset Center concert linking Bach and Mendelssohn.

Elsewhere, with period instruments entering the action, Bach’s Cantata BWV 196, based on Psalm 115, gave way to Mendelssohn’s own setting of Psalm 115, in which the textures thickened and the language ventured into the 19th century but the baroque polyphony remained. A Bach motet, Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, was preceded by a Brahms motet, Warum ist das Licht gegeben, contrasting the austere Brahms with the more intricate, lively counterpoint of Bach.

Hindemith adapted Bach’s last composition, the short chorale “Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich,” for the last page of his miniature viola concerto, Trauermusik, which gave Megill another bright idea. He led his small period group and viola soloist Karina Schmitz in the Hindemith, at the midpoint of which the basilica’s lights dramatically went on and the recessional started, the choir segueing into the Bach chorale on the way out.

Most of the main concerts are held in the Sunset Center.
Most of the main concerts are held in the Sunset Center.

Back at the Sunset Center on July 22 — following July 21’s eclectic art song recital that started with Beethoven and worked its way up to My Fair Lady’s “The Rain in Spain” — Goodwin presided over a program that illustrated the link between Bach and his first major 19th-century advocate, Mendelssohn, in a program entitled “A Mighty Fortress: Bach Inspires a Great Symphony.” This journey began with a performance of the 19-year-old Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture, which Goodwin claimed was the first U.S. performance of an early version of the piece; it might have been a bit more expansive in length than it was.

Then came Bach’s Cantata BWV 80. The incredible opening fugue did not quite achieve liftoff in this performance, but the 24-voice chorus did well afterwards, with variable results from the vocal soloists (soprano Mhairi Lawson, mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle, tenor Thomas Cooley, and baritone Peter Harvey). Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, with a subtly sexy vocalise by Lawson and a new Goodwin arrangement for five cellos, four violas, and bass (done out of necessity since only five cellists were hired for the festival), served as a Bach-inspired interlude to this sequence. However they performed only the famous Aria, leaving out the Dança movement.

Meg Bragle and Thomas Cooley were among soloists in Bach's Cantata BWV 80.
Meg Bragle and Thomas Cooley were among soloists in Bach’s Cantata BWV 80.

The payoff for this sequence was Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, whose fourth movement happens to share the Martin Luther hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” that recurs throughout Bach’s Cantata BWV 80. Again Goodwin tried something different in this performance, positioning the orchestra in what he claimed was Mendelssohn’s seating, with the first violins on the right (as seen from the audience), the second violins on the left, and the basses and cellos mid-stage. This created a dark, almost forbidding sound that de-emphasized the violins, with the low basses bursting through the center with pinging attacks. Goodwin drove this reshuffled orchestra vigorously, getting a marvelously rugged, Beethovenian response in the first movement and a just-grand-enough coda. And as a built-in encore, Goodwin sent everyone off into the night with a catchy tune via Holst’s swinging orchestral transcription of Bach’s Organ Fugue à la Gigue.

The Carmel Mission program repeats on July 27, and you can catch the Bach-Mendelssohn concert again on July 29. In between and all around these concerts are a mix of master classes, chamber music concerts, and as always, the Best of the Fest closing summary of excerpts from the festival on July 30.

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.