With a fresh look, a modern sound and the piano, the Carmel Bach Festival courts a new audience.
Thursday, July 11, 2002
Photo: Red Priest.
It''s not unusual in California to see four guys hanging out together, strumming their guitars at the beach. But when such a sight is inside a church, and the music is not "Stairway to Heaven" but the heavenly music of Bach, you know it''s not your typical summer day.
This Wednesday and Thursday (July 17-18) at Carmel''s All Saints Church, the Brazilian Guitar Quartet will offer two one-hour noontime concerts, bringing to this year''s Bach Festival the warmth and beauty of Brazil, a country where classical and popular musical styles often intermingle and shape each other.
The guitar, with its unique sound, at once sensuous and precise, is the ideal instrument for connecting diverse musical cultures and traditions. To hear the Quartet''s breathtaking arrangements of Bach is to be reminded that much of Bach''s music is rooted in familiar rhythms and dance styles. As quartet member Paul Galbraith observes, "You can play Bach on anything, and it''ll still sound like Bach."
The freedom, joyous experimentation and international flair embodied by the Brazilian Guitar Quartet sums up the general mood of this year''s Bach Festival. Featuring a wider range of choices and venues than ever before, and new concerts designed to attract new audiences, the 65th Carmel Bach Festival, which begins Saturday evening, promises to offer three weeks of non-stop musical pleasure even for those who don''t think of themselves as classical music aficionados.
Willem Wijnbergen, the Festival''s new managing director, is eager to open wide the doors of the Festival for people in the community who may never have attended a Bach Festival concert. (For more on Wijnbergen, see the profile in the Weekly of April 4.)
As more and more school districts unwisely slash funding for arts education, concert presenters nationwide are striving to create opportunities for children to hear, learn from and be inspired by great music. Numerous studies have shown, as USA Today reported last May, that there is a demonstrable correlation between academic excellence, high self-esteem, and interactive exposure to the arts. In one intriguing 1998 study conducted at UCLA, researchers found that arts education helped to level the "learning field" across socioeconomic boundaries.
And so Wijnbergen, who calls cuts in music education "disastrous," has put together a series of concerts designed to appeal to audiences of all ages and newcomers to classical music in general. With convenient family and lunchtime concerts, free shows, and enchanting candlelit solo recitals, Wijnbergen invites the public to enjoy an intense musical experience free of formality.
One notable addition to this year''s Festival is the Thursday noon Family Concert series, which begins next week with the Brazilian Guitar Quartet. Following that performance, two other Family concerts will present members of Combattimento Consort Amsterdam and the group Red Priest, which plays classical music with the rowdy exuberance of a rock band.
These same three ensembles will also offer noontime concerts at All Saints on Wednesdays, as well as longer evening performances on Mondays at the Carmel Mission. On Fridays, three noontime concerts featuring the contemplative combination of harpsichord and a string instrument (violin, cello or the deep-voiced, Baroque-era viola da gamba), will usher in the weekend with stylishly soothing music.
Another exciting addition to this year''s Festival will be several performances on modern piano-an instrument that has never appeared in the Carmel Bach Festival. In championing what many Festival patrons have long yearned for, Wijnbergen, himself an accomplished pianist and organist, has put aside the pointless argument about whether it is more "authentic" to play Bach on the harpsichord or the modern piano and given concertgoers the choice of both. Nicholas McGegan, head of the Bay Area Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, recently said it best. "Authenticity doesn''t mean anything," McGegan told an interviewer. "An authentic performance is one which moves you. I''d like for audiences to walk out of a performance saying, ''That moved me,'' rather than, ''That was correct.''"
While the harpsichord certainly has its place in the world of music (and no one plays it more masterfully than Festival favorite John Butt, who will offer three Tuesday afternoon harpischord recitals), the richly resonant sound of the modern piano is more accessible to most modern ears. Three one-hour Monday noontime concerts will present three different pianists demonstrating how glorious Bach can sound on the piano. (The acclaimed young Yugoslavian pianist Aleksandar Serdar, whose noon concert is Monday, July 29, will also offer a longer evening concert at Asilomar on Monday, July 22.)
Keyboard recitals, whether on piano or harpsichord, also have the appeal of giving listeners a glimpse into the drama of individual achievement. The years of practice, the slow development and refinement of artistry and skill: These are elements of any musician''s life that can be hard to appreciate in the group setting of an orchestra, where the varying sounds of dozens of instruments are interwoven to create a single musical texture.
A new weekend series of one-hour evening concerts will present Bach for solo instruments-guitar, violin and cello-works that Wijnbergen calls "The Olympics of Music." Indeed, Bach''s solo works are among the most challenging of the musical repertoire, but the rewards for the performer and audience are enormous.
If playing Bach were an Olympic sport, it would no doubt be the Winter Olympics. Listen to the soaring, swooping line of his violin and cello pieces and think of a downhill skier, or a ski jumper; marvel at the intricate fretwork of Paul Galbraith''s transcriptions for guitar and imagine the swirling grace and athleticism of a figure skater. These Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening concerts, programmed at the wonderfully civilized post-dinner hour of 9pm, will be lit entirely by candlelight.
While these diverse "Guests of the Fest" concerts will undoubtedly appeal to new and returning audiences alike, for many people the main evening concerts will remain the core Bach Festival experience. As Carmel''s Sunset Center continues to undergo massive renovation, finding a home for these concerts has been a challenge. Last year, they were held in the McNitt Ballroom at the Naval Postgraduate School. The need for heightened security on all military bases ended that arrangement. This year, in addition to three special evening concerts in Pacific Grove, at Asilomar''s Merrill Hall (see pg. 22), the main orchestra and choral concerts will be held at Santa Catalina School. The traditional Wednesday evening choral concerts, conducted by Bruce Lamott, will once again take place at the Carmel Mission.
Now in his 11th year as Music Director, Maestro Bruno Weil has brought a superb sense of focus and musical depth to the Festival orchestra. The Saturday evening "Opening Night" concerts will showcase Weil''s skill in designing programs that maximize the music''s emotional impact. Two cantatas-short choral works that Bach wrote weekly for religious services throughout much of his life-flank an 1899 work by Arnold Schönberg entitled "Transfigured Night." This piece for string orchestra is based on a poem that tells the story of two lovers who overcome feelings of betrayal, and ends in a mood of tender happiness and forgiveness. Preceded by a cantata treating the theme of heart-sorrow, and followed by another cantata that celebrates feelings of joy, this program traces an emotional arc familiar to many: from pain, across the hump of guilt and forgiveness, to the final releasing sense of joy and freedom.
For Weil, nothing is more moving or meaningful than the powerful emotions one feels in the presence of great music. In a phone interview from his home in southern Germany, Weil talks about Bach''s B-Minor Mass, a monumental work for choir and orchestra that he will conduct on three Sunday afternoons beginning this Sunday.
"Just this morning, I was sitting at the piano reading the score of the Mass," he says. "And it is the same miracle as ever. I have conducted this piece many times, yet each time I feel I know nothing about it! But this is not frustrating," he adds, "it''s the opposite. This miraculous music makes life wonderful, fills me with happiness and joy. It''s a feeling of being grateful for life."
That sense of gratitude came early to Weil, when in 1966, at the age of 16, he spent a year as an exchange student in Fresno. "It changed my life," he says. "I grew up in a very provincial place in Germany and had never been anywhere. Coming to California opened my mind."
In 1992, Weil was invited to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Fresno family he calls "my American family" came to see him for the first time since he had been a high school student in the ''60s. "Now my American brother and my American parents, who this year celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary, come each year to Carmel and we have a reunion," he says with evident happiness in his voice.
Since Bach''s death in 1750, his music''s popularity has traveled something of a roller coaster ride, from early oblivion to eventual adoration. When he died, of a botched eye operation, the scores of hundreds of his cantatas were sold for the paper they were written on, to be used for wrapping cheese.
Today, Bach''s music, which seems composed with equal measures of ordered structure and soulful emotion, speaks to us more than ever. Since September 11th there is a desire among many to focus on humanity''s accomplishments, on what is best about people. "There is only one composer who can speak to us in turbulent times," Weil observes. "We need him more than ever: Johann Sebastian Bach."
Lewis Thomas, author of The Lives of a Cell, was once asked what message from Earth he would send to outer space. "I would send the complete works of J. S. Bach," he replied, "but that would be boasting."