By Mike Greenberg
VICTORIA, Tex. — A big question mark hung over the venerable (est. 1976) Victoria Bach Festival two years ago when the brilliant Craig Hella Johnson, its artistic director since 1992, decided to give up the post. Johnson had considerable stature as the founding artistic director of Conspirare, the Grammy-winning professional chorus based in Austin, and he raised the stature of the festival.
To judge from a sampling of the 2017 festival, June 6-10, Johnson’s successor has replaced the question mark with an exclamation point — perhaps more appropriately, given his Spanish name and Mexican provenance, two exclamation points: ¡Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez!
His credits include founding the New Orchestra of Washington (D.C.) and, since 2015, serving as artistic director of Musica Viva at Manhattan’s Unitarian Church of All Souls, where he is director of music.
Despite the festival’s name, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach accounts for a minority of the programming – this year, four cantatas and two orchestral works spread over two noon concerts in the acoustically superb First Presbyterian Church, plus a program of organ works performed by Renée Anne Louprette in the First United Methodist Church. The cantata concerts featured an orchestra of eleven period-instrument strings and a harpsichord and a twelve-voice choir, both staffed by early-music pros assembled for the occasion. They came from across the country, though many are based in or near Austin.
The results on the June 9 concert — the cantatas Schau, lieber Gott, BWV 153, and Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 1043, plus the Double Violin Concert in D minor — were astonishing. The chorus sang with impeccable intonation, crisp German diction, and complete unity. The orchestra produced a full, beautiful sound from the gut strings. Stephen Redfield, the ensemble’s leader and a veteran of many years with this festival, and Gesa Kordes were adept and stylish soloists in the double concerto, played without a conductor. Hernandez-Valdez’s work in the cantatas was scrupulously attentive to baroque practice in matters of technique, but fully contemporary in matters of interpretation. His tempos were fleet, his details bold and dramatic, especially in the cinematic Jesu, meine Freude. One critic is kicking himself for missing the other two Bach bashes.
But there’s more to Hernandez-Valdez than mastery of Bach. His programming choices also signaled an intention to up the festival’s game in music of the modern era, into the present, and to reflect the region’s Hispanic heritage.
(This might be the place to mention that Victoria was not named for a famous queen of England. Her Majesty was but a five-year-old princess when the Mexican empresario Martín de León established this settlement on the Guadalupe River some 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, late in 1824. According to historian Anthony Quiroz in Claiming Citizenship: Mexican-Americans in Victoria, Texas, the town’s original official name was Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Victoria Nombre de Jesús. Mexican authorities reviewing de León’s application for a land grant inserted “Victoria” into the title to honor the newly installed first president of Mexico, generally known as Guadalupe Victoria. Locals shortened the town’s name to plain old Victoria after Texas won independence in 1836.)
The festival’s closing concert for full symphony orchestra (including musicians from the baroque orchestra switching to modern instruments) was dedicated to Mexican music. The centerpiece was the U.S. premiere of Juan Pablo Contreras’ Mariachitlán, an 11-minute send-up of the mariachi band tradition. That piece was expertly colored, intricately layered and sometimes delightfully raucous, studded with “wrong” notes, woozy brass, and even a police whistle representing a vain attempt to stop the fun.
The greatest hits of the Mexican nationalist style also made appearances – Silvestre Revueltas’ Sensemaya, Carlos Chavez’s Sinfonia India, José Pablo Moncayo’s Huapango, Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No. 2 – along with Chavez’s massive, muscular orchestral arrangement of Dietrich Buxtehude’s Chaconne in B minor. The performances were taut, polished, and confident throughout: Hernandez-Valdez proved undaunted by tricky rhythms, which predominated in this program. The venue, with dryish but acceptable acoustics, was the 1,482-seat Victoria Fine Arts Center, opened in 2010 and operated by the local school district.
A chamber orchestra concert on June 8 suffered from the ear-puckeringly dry acoustics of the 500-seat Leo J. Welder Center, in the historic downtown. The program, conducted with precision by Hernandez-Valdez, was mostly American: Aaron Copland’s Quiet City Suite, Fanfare for the Common Man, and Clarinet Concerto, with elegant playing by clarinetist Vanguel Tangarov; Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, Nos. 1 and 2; and Leonard Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs. But most intriguing was a side trip to Argentina for Alberto Ginastera’s delicious Variaciones concertantes, which showed off the orchestra’s top-drawer principals.
The festival’s music-making began at breakfast, with 9 a.m. performances at the Liberty Coffee Haus, also downtown. On June 9, violist Korine Fujiwara and violinist Christabel Lin collaborated in engaging, snappy performances of music by Mozart and Handel and Fujiwara’s own arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” the music occasionally intruded upon by the noise of coffee grinders and milk foamers.
Lin appeared in a rather different musical guise that evening as a member of the uncategorizable Austin band Flamenco Symphony, which performed on a mobile stage in downtown’s DeLeon Plaza, surrounded by a mix of modern office buildings and well-preserved fin de siècle structures. Lin and her colleagues (guitarists David Massey and Nathan Hinojosa, double-bassist Jeff Grauzer, percussionist Carmelo Torres) delivered a strangely winning farrago of flamenco, rock, blues, classical, and, um, whatever, in a mix of arrangements and original material.
Remarkably for a festival with such high musical standards, most performances were offered free to the public. Admission was charged only for the two evening orchestral concerts and two evening chamber music programs: One by the excellent Aeolus Quartet offered string quartets by Philip Glass, Barber, and Mendelssohn; the other by Lin, Fujiwara, cellist Gregory Sauer, and pianist Michelle Schumann (included music by Clara and Robert Schumann, Brahms, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and David Lang. Regretful about missing those last two, a certain critic is kicking himself again.
Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.