Festival Reviews

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In Bachfest concert, cellist Zuill Bailey and guitarist Jason Vieaux create the sound of symbiosis
By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

December 8, 2022

Joining Artistic Director Zuill Bailey at Barrister Winery for the latest program of the Northwest Bachfest this past Saturday and Sunday was Jason Vieaux, classical guitarist.

Before performing, Vieaux spoke to the audience with great sincerity and modesty, expressing his appreciation for the opportunity to appear in Spokane and his good fortune at having formed a friendship with Bailey. All modesty aside, Vieaux is a distinguished musician and teacher, having founded the guitar department at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and having taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music for 25 years. He also has a Grammy to his credit, awarded in 2015 for his album, “Play,” as best classical instrumental solo.

Cellist Zuill Bailey and guitarist Jason Vieaux teamed up Sunday for an afternoon concert at Barrister Winery. (Larry Lapidus)

Vieaux’s manner of speaking – clear, thoughtful and fluent – was mirrored in his playing of Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in A major. Composed originally for harpsichord and transcribed for guitar by Leo Brouwer, the piece gave us our first view of one of Vieaux’s outstanding attributes as a guitarist: his ability to voice several simultaneous melodic lines with complete independence, imparting subtle shadings of tone and phrasing to each one. While Scarlatti’s music is usually performed as relentlessly buoyant and cheerful, Vieaux found recesses of meditative calm, and sometimes melancholy, amidst the intricate counterpoint.

Vieaux’s program was thoughtfully curated, and spoke to the breadthof his taste: from Scarlatti and Bach in the early 18th century, to compositions of the present day by Vieaux himself and his colleagues. Throughout, Vieaux maintained extraordinary focus on the minutest details of execution, carefully adjusting the distance of his right hand from the bridge of the guitar, to produce subtle differences in timbre as suited the demands of each phrase.

Every piece, from the exquisitely refined Violin Sonata No 1 in G minor of J.S. Bach to the ambiguous harmonies and dark intimations of Pat Matheny’s “Road to the Sun,” was bathed in the same bright, even sunlight of Vieaux’s interpretive character. This may have led some listener to the only criticism possible of his playing on that evening, which was a certain uniformity, rather than sharp differentiation of style among composers of very different natures.

Anyone who held that objection on Saturday would have hastily jettisoned it on Sunday afternoon, when Vieaux was joined by Bailey in a concert at which the programming was as spontaneous and impactful as the performances. The essential difference between the two concerts can be summed up in a single word: synergy. There was first the synergy between the players and their audience, which was twice the size of the crowd that showed up on Saturday night, and strained the capacity of Barrister Winery. A sold-out house always creates an air of intense expectancy, and this was no exception.

The second source of synergy was, of course, between the two artists: Vieaux, the more (superficially) temperate and self-contained, and Bailey, the more volatile and spontaneous (again, superficially; he is secretly obsessed with detail and a fanatical perfectionist). The crackling expectation in the air combined with the dynamism between the two performers to produce a concert to remember - an accelerating ramping up of intensity and communion to the point at which separations between the stage and the seats and between artist and audience dissolved, producing a distillation of pure joy.

The program consisted of a group of works that had mostly been announced in advance and another group announced from the stage. It began with two solo performances by Vieaux, which, while demonstrating the same clarity and control we heard on Saturday, exhibited greater rhythmic flexibility and variety of color. The first was a masterful arrangement by Vieaux himself of Bach’s First Suite for Solo Cello in G major, the piece that introduced Bailey to Spokane audiences in March 2012. Next, Vieaux elected to insert a work not mentioned on the program, the “Evocacion” from Juan Merlin’s “Suite del Recuerdo.” This performance exhibited tremendous rhythmic and coloristic vitality, and exemplified the greater expressivity and intense lyricism that characterized Vieaux’s playing from that point forward.

He and Bailey then performed a complex and powerful work by Brazilian composer Radames Gnattali, whose works demand investigation. The audience was held rapt throughout Gnattali’s Sonata for Cello and Guitar, save at the conclusion of the central Adagio, when they gasped audibly at the exquisite tenderness and refinement with which Bailey and Vieaux matched the tone of their instruments as they slowly sank into silence.

The rendition of Manuel de Falla’s “Suite Populaire” showed the two players in absolute musical symbiosis. In the popular “Asturiana,” Vieaux never felt the need to glance at the music, but rather kept listening with the fiercest intensity to every detail of his partner’s playing, matching every pause and passionate outburst.

The intensity of the concert rose steadily through a series of works, mostly well-known, that were performed with such passionate dedication as to seem improvised on the spot: the “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5” of Heitor Villa-Lobos, popularized by a recording by Joan Baez in 1969, Fernando Bustamante’s ebullient “Misionera,” which the audience welcomed with an explosion of shouts, Camille Saint-Saens’ serene “Le Cygne,” a new arrangement by Bailey of John Williams’ haunting Theme from “Schindler’s List,” Nicolo Paganini’s Variations on a Theme from Rossini’s “Moses,” and, lastly, Charles Gounod’s heart-easing “Ave Maria.”

One had to hear Bailey’s performance of the Paganini variations to believe it. The work is part masterpiece and part circus trick, in which a series of increasingly demanding variations are performed on a single string – the A string – of the cello, incorporating every trick of fingering and bowing in Paganini’s revolutionary arsenal. Bailey’s cheerful smile as he greeted the thunderous ovation that followed masked the decades of tireless practice required to vanquish the piece with so little apparent effort.

All content © 2022 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.

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Northwest BachFest dazzles with Zuill Bailey, Helen Hwaya Kim and Jasmin Arakawa
By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

March 1, 2022

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 16, 2021

Northwest BachFest performances were at Barrister Winery on Saturday and Sunday.

As we approach the winter solstice, we encounter a common symbol almost everywhere we look: the image of a light in darkness. We find it in the star of Bethlehem, the temple lamp burning for eight days, even in Rudolph’s nose. Last weekend in Spokane, light poured into the darkness through the windows of Barrister Winery, signaling that Zuill Bailey had touched down here to sprinkle his personal brand of stardust on the Northwest BachFest.

Zuill Bailey performs at Barrister Winery on Nov. 11th.
(Gertrude Harvey)

Bailey’s vision has always provided new glasses for old wine, and last weekend’s concerts were no exception. On Saturday night, Bailey opened a treasure trove of music that is largely neglected: adaptations of concertos in which the orchestral parts have been arranged for piano.

This was a very common practice throughout the 19th and part of the 20th century. It allowed soloists to perform concertos in cities and towns without their own orchestras, and amateurs to do the same in their own homes

Joined by two outstanding colleagues, violinist Helen Hwaya Kim and pianist Jasmin Arakawa, Bailey presented arrangements of three concertos Saturday night: The Concerto in D minor for two violins by J.S. Bach, the Cello Concerto No. 2 in E minor of Victor Herbert and the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor of Johannes Brahms.

The Double Concerto of Bach is quite understandably his best-loved concerto due to the inexhaustible inventive brilliance and energy of its outer movements and the other-worldly beauty of its central slow movement.

Assigning the second violin part to the cello and distributing the orchestral elements between the two solo voices brings every note into the foreground, allowing audiences to hear and appreciate its contribution to the whole. Hearing the two solo lines in different registers, at least when they are as sensitively performed as they were by Bailey and Kim, clarifies their interaction and increases the expressive range of the music.

Bailey and Kim have known each other since their student days, and, while studying at Juilliard, played together in a trio. Perhaps as a result of this, one was astounded throughout the program by the matching of their tone, the unanimity of their phrasing and the split-second coordination of their entries.

In his Double Concerto, Brahms makes a practice of breaking phrases of rapid notes in half and challenging the soloists to reassemble them into a seamless whole. One can compare recordings of some very famous duos attempting this feat (Heifetz-Piatigorsky and Oistrakh-Fournier) and find that they come up short of the standard set by Kim and Bailey.

Partnering Bailey and Kim was pianist Jasmin Arakawa, and the term partnering cannot be too strongly emphasized. In both the Herbert and Brahms concertos, she did far more than fill in the blanks between the solo passages. Her pianism was so extraordinary and her involvement in the musical argument so passionate that one was left wishing that orchestras could do as well.

Especially in the Brahms “Double,” she produced such a range of color and texture as to make one look about to see where the string, wind and brass players were hiding. These same virtues were on display Sunday afternoon when Arakawa sat down to perform two solo works: “Egwu Amala” from “Talking Drums” by Nigerian composer Joshua Uzoigwe (1946-2005) and Paulistana #4 and #5 by Brazilian Claudio Santoro (1919-1989).

The two works could hardly be more different; the Brazilian calling for sensual, languid lyricism, and the Nigerian demanding spiky, percussive energy along with great rhythmic flexibility. Arakawa fielded every challenge without disturbing her poise even for a moment and made the audience to feel they had drunk from the well of the composers’ inspiration.

The voltage went even higher when she was joined on the platform by Kim, who, like her accompanist, displayed mastery of every aspect of the Romantic repertory written for her instrument. From the fragile lyricism of Clara Schumann’s “Three Romances for Violin” and the smoky sensuality of Saint Saens’ “Havanaise” to the hair-raising difficulties of Pablo de Sarsate’s “Carmen Fantasie,” Kim showed all the hallmarks of the musician who first inspired her commitment to the violin: Itzhak Perlman.

Like him, she found her passionate desire to engage with an audience upon an unshakable, adamantine technique capable of reducing the most fearsome challenges to mere child’s play. Bailey has long since established his stature on the world’s stage at such a level as to make discussion of his technique always beside the point.

True, he did, joined by Arakawa, navigate the dizzying passagework of Saint Saens’ First Cello Concerto as though it were a four-finger exercise, but that is what he does: devote his unsurpassed (some would say unequalled) technical resources to revealing to his audience what is most witty, most elegant, most passionate, but always most authentic and affecting at the heart of great music.

If his ready availability to Spokane audiences makes anyone believe that his abilities are other than very significant in the history of his instrument, or in the history of musical performance in our time, they are seriously mistaken.

All content © 2022 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.