Bach Festival, Newly Adventurous, Turns Its Spotlight On Monteverdi

The Charlotte Bach Festival gave what may have been the first complete local performance of Monteverdi’s ‘Vespers of 1610.’ (Photos by Perry Tannenbaum)

CHARLOTTE — The last night of the Charlotte Bach Festival has always been a culmination — always aspiring to the sublime. Singers and musicians, gathered in the Queen City from across the country, have rehearsed the Masterwork program for over a week, throughout the festival, and before it begins. At least two noontime demonstration lectures have preceded the closing night concert, helping audiences to understand Bach better and appreciate how his music illuminates the texts.

Bach’s Mass in B Minor, the St. Matthew Passion, the Easter and Ascension Oratorios, and the final installment of a week-long immersion in the Christmas Oratorio have all taken their turn in the festival’s farewell rites. But the 2024 season (June 14-22), the first without its foundational core (artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett and executive director Mike Trammell) has been different in many ways: leaner and more adventurous.

For the first time, a non-Bach composition occupied the esteemed Masterwork slot, Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, premiered three-quarters of a century before Johann Sebastian’s birth.

Kiri Tollaksen introduced her cornetto at various CBF events around town.

By the end of the nine-day celebration, incoming executive director Garrett Murphy, surmising in his introductory remarks that the performance we would soon be witnessing of the Vespers was likely a Charlotte premiere of the complete work, actually boasted that its chamber-sized, conductor-less presentation would be part of the treat.

Nor was the princely opening-night concert headlined by a Bach selection. Instead, the Leipzig master’s Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden, a psalm cantata, served as the preamble to concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky leading an intense, seven-piece distillation of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons at the Sandra Levine Theatre at Queens University.

“Chamber music at its finest,” Murphy said.

It was certainly part of the wonder. During the noontime lecture-demos, Nosky was clearly giving cues to the musicians between segments of Monteverdi scholar Roseen Giles’ AV presentation on the Vespers and its cultural context. Organist Nicolas Haigh, who led the Bach Akademie Charlotte Choir and Vocal Fellows in “The Renaissance Motet” at the Holy Comforter Episcopal Church — one of several new sites for this year’s festival — was likely nodding to the choir during the demo.

But at the Saturday night performance, it became more obvious that singers and musicians weren’t always in view. One or two might discreetly exit to perform backstage or off in the wings. For the echoes of “Audi Cœlum,” tenor Corey Shotwell perched himself up in the dimly lit balcony at the rear of the hall with lutenist Daniel Swenberg to give his responses to tenor John Ramseyer. Shotwell had to be quick about it, for he had made another dramatic entrance earlier, turning the holy, holy, holy “Duo Seraphim” duet between Ramseyer and Matthew Newhouse into a trio.

Soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh teamed with theorbo master William Simms in a concert of Renaissance songs.

Only the choir’s “Nisi Dominus” intervened between Shotwell’s roles, so he and Swenberg had less than five minutes to take their places. The ensemble, 13 vocalists and 12 instrumentalists, led themselves without a hiccup. Singers were particularly nimble, shuffling their positions with dizzying precision between the 13 parts of the Vespers on top of executing their exits and returns. They seemed to have fun: I noticed one rook laughing at herself as she started to go the wrong way.

Nosky, cello virtuoso Guy Fishman, and Haigh are now the co-artistic leaders replacing Jarrett, while Haigh’s spouse, soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh, continues to recruit the talent in her key role as director of artistic planning. All four have been fixtures at the Bach Fest since its beginning in 2018, and all four had events this season in which they shone conspicuously as leaders.

Like her husband, Margaret Haigh made a Renaissance excursion at the artsy McColl Center with “Lagrime mie: Songs of Lamentation, Disdain, and Renewal.” The headline song, a rather epic monologue of thwarted love, was by Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), the youngest of the seven composers on the program, which began with the eldest, John Dowland (1563-1626). Theorbo master William Simms strapped on his littler lute and accompanied Haigh on two Dowland songs, “In darkness let me dwell” and “Come, heavy sleep.” In between the two, all eyes were on Simms as he and his iPad lit up “Fantasy P6” from Dowland’s 7 Fantasies.

Mezzo-soprano Kim Leeds with violinist Aisslinn Nosky

Simms was also brilliant in two enchanting theorbo solos by less familiar composers, a Passacaglia originally written for chitarrone by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger (1580-1651) and a chitarrone Toccata by Alessandro Piccinini (1566-1638). These were lovely interludes between Haigh’s diva turns. “Nor com’st thou yet (Hero’s Lament to Leander” by Nicholas Lanier (1588-1666) threatened to upstage Strozzi’s centerpiece with Haigh’s fervid outpourings of grief, and the “Lamento di Zaida moro” by Luigi Rossi (1597-1653), while not as touching or beautiful as the Lagrime mie, far surpassed it in rage, fury, and anathema.

How delightful, then, to end with Monteverdi’s “Voglio di vita uscir,” a madrigal whose infectious jauntiness absolutely belies the desolation of its title and its desperate plea for forgiveness. Very much a different side of the Vespers composer.

Fishman’s concept concert, “The Cello, Ascending,” chronicled the evolution of the instrument from continuo drone to solo voice during the Baroque era, following a similar template to Haigh’s. The cellist was generously deferential toward his fellow musicians in his programming, doling out plum parts to violinists Nosky and Fiona Hughes, mezzo-sopranos Laura Atkinson and Kim Leeds, and Kiri Tollaksen, a new member of the orchestra introducing her cornetto at various CBF events around town.

It was hard to decide which of these soloists stole the show. Nosky was probably dealt the best hand, duetting with Hughes on Sonata No. 4 by Dario Castello (1590-1659) and absolutely dazzling in a Trio Sonata by Alessandro Stradella (1643-1682). Her best was arguably the Violin Sonata and Basso Continuo by Handel — with some impressive accompaniment from Fishman. Yet it was difficult to eclipse the éclat created by Tollaksen’s cornetto — an instrument made of wood, wrapped in leather, and sounding like brass! — playing a breathtaking work by Giovanni Legrenzi (1626-1690).

Peter Blanchette played an 11-string archguitar.

Most memorable for me was hearing Atkinson sing the Salmo XV (Psalm 15) by Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739) in the sanctuary of Trinity Presbyterian Church. Not only were there Hebrew melodies woven into the fabric of the Psalm, there was also an entire section in Hebrew, a popular acrostic, “Ma’oz tsur,” that is traditionally sung on Chanukah. In his introduction, Fishman remarked that Marcello was so respectful of Jewish practice that his score is written right-to-left at this juncture — with Hebrew lettering!

Leeds ended the concert, much in the same manner as Haigh, by singing “Di Verde Ulivo” from Tito Manlio, showing us a different side of the festival’s other featured composer.

Both of the featured artists at this year’s festival were magnificent, though vastly divergent in scale. Peter Blanchette brought his 11-string archguitar to a fittingly outré location, The Pianodrome installation at The Historic Grace at the Brooklyn Collective, a humble Black church building in the heart of town. Blanchette’s invention, which looks like a stunted theorbo, had actually begun as a vihuela before getting its neck and string makeovers. The church turned out to be a perfect match for Blanchette’s intimate art, for he didn’t try to dazzle us with technique so much as immerse us in Bach’s spirit. Every note was gilded and precious.

Blanchette’s journey toward his invention made for a disarming anecdote. Floored by Julian Bream’s recordings on lute when he was starting out, Blanchette searched nearby in vain for a lute to buy. When he finally found an instrument he could borrow, the gourd shape didn’t suit him. The confluence between Blanchette’s belly and the lute, he recalled, was like the joining of “two basketballs,” touching each other at just one spot.

Jonathan William Moyer performed Bach’s German Organ Mass.

Sitting around Blanchette was a bit like sitting around a campfire, for the three stadium-like bleachers of The Pianodrome were constructed from old pianos, keyboards included. The perfect way to savor Blanchette’s mystic command of Bach’s writing for lute, but not the most comfortable. Pillows were thoughtfully provided.

From the opening fortissimo, all was grandeur as Jonathan William Moyer brought Bach’s Clavier-Übung III (German Organ Mass) to Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church and its mighty Fisk Opus 136. Whether Moyer put all the Fisk’s 2,588 pipes into play is a matter of conjecture, but the whole building certainly trembled in the densest, most thunderous passages, and lift-off was unlimited when the music was most meditative and spiritual.

This was the purest Bach evening at this year’s Charlotte Bach and the most enjoyable organ concert I have ever experienced. Surely there are fine recordings of this grand work, but the live experience on an instrument like the Opus 136 is transformational.