Festival Reviews

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Concert review: As has been tradition, BachFest ends on a high note
By Larry Lapidus

March 12, 2018

The crowd that filled the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on Sunday afternoon was anything but solemn and reverential. The church was packed, but not by worshippers – unless you wish to say that they worshipped the high standards of musical skill and commitment that have been offered throughout the 40th season of the Northwest BachFest, of which this was the final performance.

The presence (if not the actual music) of J.S. Bach was never far from any of the programs, but it was stamped in boldface on this one, which opened with his Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for organ. This was the first of several pieces for organ performed by the cathedral’s organist John Bodinger, who played a significant part in last year’s Bach festival, as both organist and pianist.

Bach’s C minor Passacaglia and Fugue makes such a powerful impression on the listener, it is difficult to think of it only as music. It seems to combine the resources of all the arts: painting, literature, sculpture and architecture, as well as music, and to define the loftiest goals one can hope to attain in all of them. For organists, it is the 4-minute mile, the hole-in-one and the 61st home run combined. The organist must be as successful in portraying grandeur as humility, comedy as pathos and ferocity as lyricism, which demands a deep understanding both of the music on the page and also of how it can best be realized by the specific instrument played since Bach left no indications of tempo or dynamics, much less such refinements as voicing and registration. Bodinger proved himself equal to Bach’s every challenge in this stupendously great work and left the audience at once exhausted and exhilarated.

In the two ensuing works for solo organ, the Meditation (1928) of Louis Vierne and the Choral No. 3 in A minor of Cesar Franck (1890), Bodinger proved himself again as no mere technician, but an urgently communicative musician, capable of reaching through the complex mechanism of his instrument to galvanize an audience.

His final performance Sunday was as the discrete accompanist to festival director Zuill Bailey in the first of two works influenced by the Jewish tradition: The “Kol Nidrei” (1880) of Max Bruch and “Schelomo, An Hebraic Rhapsody” (1916) by Ernest Bloch. Bruch was not a Jew and regarded the Hebrew melodies he employed in his work for cello and orchestra with the same detachment as he felt from the Hibernian themes of his celebrated “Scottish Fantasy” for Violin, Harp and Orchestra. Furthermore, he sits on the branch of Romanticism started by Felix Mendelssohn, which is characterized by formal balance, restrained emotion and deft touches of pictorial color.

In contrast, Bloch was born a Jew in Switzerland and came to the U.S. before World War I. Bloch worked in a conservative modern idiom and in many of his works expressed intense, turbulent emotion. “Schelomo” truly is a rhapsody, propelled by its own emotional energy, following its own psychological contours rather than being governed by traditional formal structures. It places extravagant demands both on the soloist and orchestra, or, in this case, on the pianist who elects to take it on. The pianist we had the pleasure to hear on Sunday, Elizabeth DeMio, had nothing to fear from Bloch’s thorny and explosive writing, or from anything else written for the instrument, for that matter.

She never allowed a sliver of daylight to open up between her and her gifted, highly spontaneous partner. In this and in the closing piece on the program, Chopin’s Polonaise Brillante in C major Op. 3, she demonstrated not only admirable musicianship, but some serious technique. The Chopin was performed in an edition by the legendary cellist Emmanuel Feuermann, in which the editor designed to impart the same virtuoso dazzle to the cello part that the composer gave to the piano, and Bailey swallowed it in a single gulp. Having long ago forgotten the meaning of the phrase “technical difficulty,” Zuill Bailey took the Polonaise at a breathtaking clip without ever causing DeMio to sound a single false note or to smudge a single phrase. Believe me, somebody has really practiced her scales!

Zuill Bailey burst upon the consciousness of most of us here by performing the six Suites for Cello by Bach during the festival six years ago, seated in the same spot he occupied on Sunday afternoon. Though it seemed then that his playing could not possibly be improved, it has since grown even more flexible, spontaneous and spellbinding. That such a gifted musician also has the skill, and time, to program a complex music festival with such insight and imagination is truly a cause for celebration, especially in Spokane.

Larry Lapidus can be reached at larry.lapidus@gmail.com.

All content © 2018 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.

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Concert review: Master musicians shine with ‘Don Quixote’
By Larry Lapidus

March 6, 2018

Ever since the programs for the 2018 Northwest BachFest were announced, fans have focused particular attention on a work which was to receive its West Coast premiere at the festival: an arrangement by the celebrated cellist Lazslo Varga (1936-2017) of Richard Strauss’ greatest orchestral work, “Don Quixote” (1897).

A glance at the full title of the work tells us why it would never have appeared at the festival in its original form: Fantastic Variations for Large Orchestra on a Theme of Knightly Character, Op. 35. Strauss, famous as a conductor as well as a composer, asks for 110 instruments in the score of “Don Quixote,” including doublings in the brass and winds, augmented strings and a vast percussion section that includes a wind machine. Barrister Winery, the host to Monday’s concert, could scarcely contain the orchestra, much less an audience.

When one of the greatest orchestrators of all time conceives of a work on such a scale, something is going to be lost when it is performed by a chamber ensemble, and, in fact, there were some balance problems inherent in the arrangement that all the skill of the performers could not solve entirely. Still, these shortcomings of the arrangement were kept to a minimum, thanks to the unflagging focus of the players, four of whom were distinguished members of the Spokane Symphony: Mateusz Wolski (concertmaster), Nick Carper (principal viola), Daniel Cotter (second clarinet) and Emily Browne (principal horn).

It was a delight to be able to hear Strauss’ solo parts played in such an intimate setting. Wolski’s passionate evocation of Quixote’s love for his imagined Dulcinea could be savored in much greater detail than would be possible in a large concert hall. One could revel in the immediacy in Carper’s playing, as he gave voice to both the coarseness and the tenderness of Quixote’s sidekick, Sancho Panza. Cotter substituted skillfully for an entire wind section, lending particular warmth to the ensemble with the bass clarinet. One was moved to search for a bottle of compressed air near the chair of Browne, who seemed perfectly at ease with Strauss’s difficult writing for horn. The piano part was perhaps the most difficult, as it had to fill in the gaps left by the removal of so many other parts. Pianist Matt Herskowitz, returning for the second time to the festival, displayed complete mastery, actually succeeding in making it appear an integral part of Strauss’ conception, while in fact no piano appears in the original score.

The role of Quixote himself is given to the cello, and it runs the gamut of emotion from comical bluster to lofty passion and, ultimately, quiet resignation. Zuill Bailey left all technical challenges in the dust, focusing, rather, on conveying all the tragicomic pathos of Miguel Cervantes’ timeless character. To witness Bailey, one of today’s masters of the instrument, perform this part at a distance of 6 feet, while one sips from a glass of delicious wine, is a pleasure to which life offers few equals.

The balance of the evening was devoted to a wonderful performance of a slight but enchanting work, the Sextet for Strings and Winds in C major Op. 37 of Ernst von Dohnanyi (1877-1960), a gifted pianist as well as composer who spent the final years of his life teaching in Florida. The sextet is not terribly substantial, and its melodies are forgotten as soon as they are heard, but it is so vivacious, so skillfully constructed, and its harmonies so piquant and surprising, that one cannot help but feel exhilarated and grateful for having heard it, especially in such a performance as we heard on Monday night, in which every one of Wolski’s sly or teasing inflections was perfectly matched by every player. Bailey’s face beamed when it was over, and he turned to the group to give them a thumbs-up, as if to say, “Man, we nailed that one!” Indeed they had.

All content © 2018 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.

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Concert review: In ‘re-imagined’ festival, musical magic can be found everywhere.
By Larry Lapidus

March 3, 2018

In the current season of the Northwest BachFest, artistic director Zuill Bailey has made clear his intention to “re-imagine” (a favorite term of his) settled assumptions we might have about concert music, where and how it should be performed, and who should perform it.

After traveling from Barrister Winery to River Park Square, the festival popped up at the Hamilton Studio, itself a re-imagined 1928 school building in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood. Performing were the Ying Quartet, joined again by Bailey, this time as soloist in a striking arrangement, or re-imagining, of Robert Schumann’s beloved Concerto for Cello Op. 129, in which the orchestral parts are artfully assigned to the string quartet.

It was Bailey who first proposed the arrangement, based on documentary evidence that Schumann had conceived the piece as a string quintet, and on his own feeling that the beauties of the solo part were hampered by the composer’s unsuccessful attempt at marrying it with a symphony orchestra. The performance on Friday immediately proved the value of the arrangement, as problems of balance and continuity that plague the concerto vanished, while both the tenderness and vigor of Schumann’s ideas were allowed to sing out clearly.

In particular, the Romantic lyricism of the second movement could fall, as it should, like an intimate whisper in the ear of the audience, thanks to the hushed intensity of Bailey’s playing. The range of color and expression he commands in the quietest passages is a continual source of wonder. If you have not heard Bailey in live performance, you have not experienced all that the cello is capable of.

To hear just how much a solo violin is capable of, lovers of music have been turning for almost 300 years to the six Sonatas and Partitas for violin by J.S. Bach. No more moving example of the brilliance and humanity of Bach’s writing could be hoped for than the performance we heard of the Sonata No. 1 in G minor by Robin Scott, the first violin of the Ying Quartet. There was brilliance, for example, in his handling of Bach’s setting of four distinct voices for a single instrument in the fugal second movement. One sat in wonder as one entry followed another, each with its own distinct phrasing and tonal character, with no interruption in the phrasing of the other voices. This is remarkable enough when four people manage it, but one! Bach’s deep humanity, which is ever-present in his music, was expressed by the beauty of tone and sensitive coloring Scott obtained from his beautiful Guadagnini violin, which was created 38 years after Bach wrote the sonata.

If the three pillars of music are melody, structure and sound, we were able to hear each one explored during the course of the program. Speaking simplistically, if structure was the outstanding characteristic of the Bach sonata, and melody that of the Schumann concerto, then sneebeauty and variety of sound is the chief quality of the last piece on the program, the String Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op. 35 of Anton Arensky. Although no match for his friend, Pytor Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, Arensky was a skillful and industrious composer with a fine ear for instrumental color. He scored his second quartet not for the customary two violins, viola and cello, but replaced one violin with a second cello, whose part was taken, not surprisingly, by Bailey.

The novel scoring allows Arensky to shift the tonal center toward the baritone, and to explore the full coloristic resources of that range. While one cello grumbles in the depths of its C-string, the other sings out on its more penetrating A-string. This also frees the viola from its customary no-man’s land, swamped by two duetting violins and the much louder cello, so that its distinctive timbre can take an equal part in the discussion. The augmented Ying Quartet made the most of Arensky’s burnished tonal pallet, and clarified the link between it and the much more famous explorations in sound by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

Larry Lapidus can be reached at larry.lapidus@gmail.com.

All content © 2018 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.

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Years-long search brings ‘Don Quixote’ to Northwest BachFest
By Azaria Podplesky

March 2, 2018

It all started with a rumor.

While thinking ahead to the 40th anniversary of Northwest BachFest, artistic director and Grammy Award-winning cellist Zuill Bailey heard that, somewhere out there, a Laszlo Varga-arranged version of Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote” for sextet was waiting to be performed.

The Strauss piece was written for cello, viola and full orchestra, with the cello acting as the well-intentioned but easily angered Quixote and the viola playing the role of his sidekick Sancho Panza.

Because of its grandeur and difficulty, Bailey said, the piece is rarely performed.

But Varga’s arrangement, written for piano, violin, cello, viola, horn and clarinet, was more manageable.

Bailey knew that the world-renowned Varga, who served as principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic for 11 years, was also a celebrated arranger, but he had never heard of Varga’s take on “Don Quixote.”

“I’d never heard of this before, never seen the music, never seen a performance of it,” he said. “I thought ‘Well, where would they have it?’ ”

Bailey, who is celebrating his fifth year as the festival’s artistic director, did some digging and eventually learned that before Varga died in 2014, he donated his entire music library to the University of North Carolina-Greensboro’s Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives.

Bailey happened to be performing at the school about a year and a half ago and, in his words, fate played its card when he was approached by the curators of the archives after the concert.

“I said ‘Is it true that you have Laszlo Varga’s collection and is it true that this piece might exist?’ ” he said. “They came up to me the next day and handed me the parts. They said ‘It’s really never been played before. It was unveiled here at the university, but we would love for you to showcase this in the world.’ ”

After receiving Varga’s arrangement, Bailey called BachFest executive director Gertrude Harvey and proposed showcasing the work and its “unusual configuration of instruments” at the next festival.

Bailey, Mateusz Wolski (violin), Nick Carper (viola), Daniel Cotter (bass clarinet), Emily Browne (horn) and Matt Herskowitz (piano), who is returning to BachFest after popular performances in 2016, will perform the West Coast premiere of “Don Quixote” on Monday at Barrister Winery.

The sextet will also perform “Don Quixote” on Wednesday at Hamilton Studio and Thursday at Hagadone Event Center in Coeur d’Alene.

Varga’s heroic writing for the cello, Bailey said, helps tell the story of Don Quixote, as does the sound effects the musicians make throughout the performance, like bleating sheep and Quixote’s fight with a windmill.

The sextet’s performances will also feature projections that guide listeners through the story.

“It’s like film music, in a way,” Bailey said. “It tells its own story without having to have the visuals, but in this case, we’ll have them.”

Each performance of “Don Quixote” will close with a performance of Ernö Dohnányi Sextet in C Major, Op. 37.

Bailey called this piece unusual because of its musical configuration, which is exactly like that of Varga’s “Don Quixote” adaptation.

These unusual configurations are just part of how Bailey is celebrating the festival’s 40th anniversary.

In the first week of the festival, which opened on Feb. 27, Bailey and guest musicians the Ying String Quartet performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata and Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto, both of which have been arranged for cello and string quartet.

“I was just trying to come up with other ways to reimagine the pieces we know in ways that would be really appropriate and fun,” he said. “In these two weeks, we’re doing so many interesting things that are very celebrated works but looking at them in different ways.”

All content © 2018 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.

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Concert review: Ying Quartet brings emotion, energy to BachFest’s opening concert
By Larry Lapidus

February 28, 2018

The inaugural concert of the 2018 Northwest BachFest was made of ideal pairings: the Ying String Quartet playing chamber music that perfectly matched its personality in a venue that allowed the music to shine.

For a successful string quartet, the four players must combine years of individual study into an organic entity that thinks and plays as one. The most famous – the Budapest String Quartet, the Amadeus Quartet or the Julliard String Quartet – are instantly identifiable by their sound and stylistic profile. The Ying Quartet – Robin Scott (violin), Janet Ying (violin), Phillip Ying (viola) and David Ying (cello) – has achieved this, too.

As soon as the resonant recesses of Barrister Winery filled with the opening strains of Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 1 in E-flat Op. 12, the character of the Ying Quartet became apparent: a warm, burnished tone that seems to emerge unforced from their instruments. Even in the most intense passages, there is an underlying sweetness and lyricism. This description would apply as well to the music of Mendelssohn as to the Ying Quartet, so it goes without saying that the First Quartet sang and danced with exactly the balance between vigor and lyricism demanded by the music. This did not preclude some passages of fearsome virtuosity (also characteristic of Mendelssohn’s musical personality) that were carried off by violinist Scott with magisterial command.

In counterpoise to the Mendelssohn in the first half of the program was the String Quartet Op. 3 (1910) of Alban Berg. As the performance unfolded, the audience came to see the truth of the remarks David Ying made in his introduction: that, despite the obvious difference between the harmonic languages of the two works, Berg’s aim was really the same as that of Mendelssohn. Both composers sought to communicate intense emotion as freely and effectively as possible.

In turning away from the traditional diatonic harmonic language employed since before the time of Bach, and adopting the 12-tone system created by his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, Berg succeeded in freeing himself from fixed tonal relationships and melodic lengths divisible by four that underpin the musical vocabulary of Mendelssohn. In the Berg Quartet, ideas and feeling are free to develop, expand and morph as human feelings actually do. The perfectly matched voices of the Ying Quartet surged and faltered together in bringing Berg’s passionate outpourings to life, allowing a vivid emotional narrative to take shape in the mind’s eye of the audience.

In the second half of the program, the Ying Quartet was joined by cellist and festival artistic director Zuill Bailey for Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata.” The 1803 sonata, originally composed for violin and piano, is the longest and most ambitious of Beethoven’s violin sonatas and the most symphonic in conception, making it a natural candidate for arrangement for a larger ensemble. The taxing violin part is assigned almost entirely to the first violin and was brilliantly brought to life by Scott, while Beethoven’s dense piano writing is distributed quite evenly to the second violin, viola and two cellos.

Although it lacks the bristling contrast between a percussive instrument and a bowed instrument of the original version, the quintet arrangement of the sonata conveys most of the wit and fearsome energy of the original, especially when performed with the expertise and commitment we witnessed in the Ying Quartet and their distinguished guest. Bailey is not known primarily as a chamber musician, but as a celebrated and charismatic soloist, and there were several times during the performance when one’s attention was drawn from the work’s more significant melodic content to the brilliance and magnetism emerging from the second cello.

All content © 2018 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.