Under New Conductor, Bach Fest Restarts With (Wait For It) Mahler 4th

Tower Music is a long-standing Carmel Bach tradition of pre-concert outdoor brass ensemble performances in a courtyard outside the Sunset Center. (Photo courtesy Carmel Bach Festival)

CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, Calif. — There is a new breeze blowing through the 86th Carmel Bach Festival, and her name is Grete Pedersen.

Now 62, Pedersen is a major force in her native Norway, having founded the Oslo Chamber Choir and serving as music director of the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir for the past 33 years, yet she is barely known outside Northern Europe. She is actually a former soccer star who was named to Norway’s national women’s teams in 1980 and 1981, but eventually chose music over football as a career.

Invited to guest conduct last summer by Carmel Bach’s director of choral activities, Andrew Megill, she became one of three candidates who “auditioned” last summer to succeed Paul Goodwin as artistic director and principal conductor. Pedersen got the nod, and already her ingratiating personality — as expressed in a heavy Norwegian accent — and flair for thematic programming seems to have lit a fire under the festival, which this year has resumed full-scale operations for the first time since pre-Covid days.

Grete Pedersen, artistic director and principal conductor of the Carmel Bach Festival

I dropped into foggy, delightfully cool Carmel midway through the two-week-long festival — very happy to get out from under the heat dome that was blistering the Southwest — and was able to catch the first and the last programs in reverse order July 21 and 22 on the main stage, the 718-seat, Gothic-arch-ribbed Sunset Center Theater. By that, I mean that I caught the end of the first cycle and the start of the second cycle (Carmel Bach repeats its sequence of programs during its second week). Not surprisingly, given the inauguration of a new conductor, the theme for this festival is “Beginnings” — and both concerts I attended had “beginnings” of different kinds in mind.

While Carmel Bach continues to be a mix of old, middle, and new, with a substantial amount of Johann Sebastian Bach works reminding us who the patron saint is around here, there is a feeling of a refreshening of the routine. As the audience enters the Sunset Center, we now see faded black-and-white videos of the rehearsals on a screen behind the Festival Orchestra. Even the Tower Music, a long-standing Carmel Bach tradition of pre-concert outdoor brass ensemble performances in an adjoining courtyard, seemed especially vibrant one evening, closing with a spirited treatment of an arrangement of “The Throne Room” from John Williams’ Star Wars.

Pedersen doesn’t use a baton — not a surprise from someone with a lot of choral conducting experience — keeping a steady beat with her expressive hands. She can be unpredictable and spontaneous, choosing at the last minute to move Mozart’s The Marriage Of Figaro Overture from the opening of the first half of the July 21 concert to the close of the first half.

After a brief introductory talk, she led off the July 21 concert with “Breaking the Ice” by the Swedish composer Karin Rehnqvist (also little-known outside Scandinavia). It is part of a larger work called ARKTIS ARKTIS! that purports to be a musical memoir of Rehnqvist’s feelings on a visit to polar Canada. The strings imitate the howling wind or produce short, sharp strokes, string harmonics up high create a feeling of the stasis of winter until the close when the ice seems to break. The style and texture of this piece reminds me a bit of Icelandic music in general, with perhaps a touch of György Ligeti.

The Carmel Bach Festival’s Sunset Center (Photo by Richard S. Ginell)

Then, without so much as a pause, the wistful sounds of Mahler’s “Blumine” (or “Flower”), the deleted second movement from the Symphony No. 1, emerged from the ice break. It was as if a long winter had ended and spring started to bloom, a real beginning. Pedersen favored a slightly fast pace through the flowers, observing the upward string glides that seemed like a reminder of the Rehnqvist piece. Placed last after a pause, the short Mozart overture then became a gleeful celebration of the earth awakening after the winter’s slumber.

Poetic programming, I would say. But the danger in the Rehnqvist-to-Mahler sequence is that many might not know where one piece ends and the next begins, with “Blumine” still not being a familiar concert item. (Indeed, some audience members wondered aloud, where was the Mahler?)

The bulk of the playing time was taken up by Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 which, given the small size of the Sunset stage, is probably the only Mahler symphony Carmel Bach could have handled (not including posthumous chamber-sized transcriptions of the symphonies). Nothing by Mahler had ever been performed at Carmel Bach until that Friday night — let alone in an imaginative context like that Pedersen placed his music in.

Pedersen reportedly had never conducted this symphony before, and she seemed only too happy to follow Mahler’s tempo fluctuations while maintaining their proportions. The fast parts really whisked along, the slowdowns swelled, string portamentos were plentiful, and she could build hefty heads of steam for the big climaxes in the first and third movements and make the fourth movement dance. Soprano Clara Rottsolk, standing on a small platform within the violins, had the right lyric voice for the fourth movement, but she could barely be heard from that position at times.

Baritone Jesse Blumberg sang Adam in Haydn’s ‘The Creation’ (Arielle Doneson Photography)

This Festival Orchestra plays more cohesively than any of the editions I’ve heard in previous Carmel Bach festivals going back to 2009, though the use of gut strings gave the lyrical passages a slightly raw sound in the dry Sunset acoustics. Nevertheless, their first attempt at a Mahler symphony turned out really nicely as a whole, and you can interpret it in context as a seasonal transition from spring to a bucolic summer.

On to the second performance of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation the next night (July 22), and this is where the radical surprises kicked in. The orchestra was tuning up, and we heard some discordant sounds of wild animals and electronic noise gradually increasing in volume, merging with the band. Pedersen came from the wings almost unnoticed amid the din and signaled the roar of the timpani that cut off the modernist chaos and launched “The Representation of Chaos,” Haydn’s forward-looking instrumental picture of the void before the Creation. Yes, it was another beginning, and a marvelously effective and theatrical one.

There were more pleasant shocks to come in Part One. “And then there was light!” was greeted with an explosion of bright light in the hall as if it was the Big Bang. Projections of stars were spread all throughout the hall. The first sunrise, the first rain silently pelting us with imaginary droplets, ocean waves, a babbling brook, sprouts turning into an apple and fields of grain, a moody moon sequence — anything the text mentioned, the video crew had an image or video ready to roll on the back screen.

Even more importantly, with a flick of an accent, phrasing, or tempo fluctuation, Pedersen had an appropriately vivid musical characterization of whatever appeared in the text, on the screen, or throughout the hall, while keeping things faithful to Haydn and moving at a consistently lively, brisk overall pace. When God rested on the seventh day after all of that construction work, so did Grete, using the break to talk informally to the audience before Part Three as the whole crew of performers stomped their feet in approval.

Bass-baritone Enrico Lagasca sang Raphael in ‘The Creation’ (Darnell Bennett)

In Part Three, the onscreen visual effects were mostly gone, but in their place, the exchanges between Adam and Eve were semi-staged with some restrained physical come-hither action. Their duets bounced along with a verve reminiscent of a Mozart comic opera.

Another factor that figured in the communicative power of this Creation was that it was performed in intelligibly sung English, using Paul McCreesh’s modernization of the original English text. Though standing in the same spot in Part One as in the Mahler the previous night, Rottsolk this time could be clearly heard as Gabriel (and later as Eve), and her singing rang pleasingly through the hall, though a few climactic high notes were a bit of a reach. The male soloists were strong and easily understood — tenor Thomas Cooley (Uriel), baritone Jesse Blumberg (Adam), and bass-baritone Enrico Lagasca (Raphael) — and the members of Megill’s skilled Festival Chorale and Chorus looked like they were having fun keeping up with Pedersen’s quick tempo in the final chorale.

This was one of those rare multi-media concoctions that had been flooding concert halls pre-Covid in which the visual elements actually enhanced the musical ones. Combined with the breezy pacing, it made everything more meaningful, more enjoyable, and even fun in stretches. And why not? Haydn had a great sense of humor that was not left entirely behind in this oratorio.

The Mozart/Rehnqvist/Mahler concert repeats on July 28, and there are still some main concerts and a plethora of chamber concerts left, capped by the traditional Best of the Fest finale — led by Pedersen — on July 29 for those who only have time for a single highlights reel of music. For tickets and information, go here.