Carmel Classical Crossroads
Weil’s departure from Bach Fest marks the end of an era – and a new beginning.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Anyone who has followed Bruno Weil’s programming in the two decades since he became music director of the Carmel Bach Festival will instantly recognize the Weil touch in this his final season. From his Saturday opening night “sampler” to those evenings pointedly delegated to the specialists in his stable, the 2010 theme couldn’t have been distilled by anyone else.
As if set out to give everyone something to sink their teeth into, the name “Bach Festival” has come to mean less and less under Weil than education director David Gordon’s recently named weblog, “Classical Music Matters.” To Weil’s credit, fitting all the implicit threads into such a coherent tapestry has rarely looked so comprehensive as it does this season. Two festive Bach cantatas on the Saturday program (July 17, 24) stir anticipation for the great St. Matthew Passion (July 18, 25). Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody will subsequently be answered by the composer’s choral Song of Destiny, while Beethoven’s cheeky Choral Fantasy in C will whet desire for his Fifth Symphony (July 23, 30). Associate conductor Andrew Megill conducts all forces in the work that can lay claim to launching the Baroque style, Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 (July 21, 28 at Carmel Mission).
This vast survey of novelties and masterpieces gives over to celebrated violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch a valedictory field of strings that levels Locatelli and Telemann with Bach (July 19, 26) while keyboardist Andrew Arthur and colleagues celebrate the genius of Handel (July 22, 29). David Gordon joins Weil and fortepianist David Breitman in “Aha, Beethoven, a search for the heart of Genius” (July 20, 27). Morning, afternoon, evening and “candlelight” recitals are only some of the many other festival offerings. Cellist Rafael Wallfisch is a major draw in his recital of Bach solo suites, and his participation in Schubert’s Quintet in C and Bach’s unique Musical Offering to Frederick the Great.
When Weil became the festival’s music director, he systematically and controversially yanked the event off its traditional foundation and rebuilt it on an entirely different template. Weil’s MO was not only to de-frock the Apostle Bach cultivated by Sandor Salgo – Weil’s predecessor, who opened each summer’s festival by recycling the St. Matthew Passion, St. John Passion and Mass in B Minor – but to jump-start the event with a festival sampler that included Bach (usually a cantata never before heard in Carmel), along with other composers and a 19th or 20th century piece based on Baroue forms.
Weil did something else that cannot be understated. He brought in specialists in early-music performance practice, and – virtually hands-off – put them in charge of festival resources and entire programs.
The demolition and reconstruction of Carmel’s venerable Sunset Center, from 2001 to 2003, was disruptive, forcing the use of various other venues each burdened by their own set of production problems. And the inauguration of the renovated hall turned out to mirror the festival’s identity problems. It offered a variety of venues, including the lobby, improved sightings and lighting, with a much larger stage for large orchestral and choral works. And it came with a new set of acoustic deficiencies, shown at their worst in 2003’s opening weekend, which featured an expensive but problematic electronic sound enhancement system – which, fortunately, has since responded well to various tweaks and refinements.
But while a performer’s job is ultimately to convey to the listener how the performer feels about the music he or she is playing, the conductor’s vocabulary is limited to tempo, dynamics, pace, phrase and balances, all filtered through a composer’s intentions. In practical terms, that comes down to knowing how a room responds to the sounds on stage.
For Weil, the Bach Festival has been an unpredictable fit. His production of Brahms’ German Requiem two years ago was elegantly modeled on Herbert von Karajan’s famous 1965 Berlin recording. Yet last summer’s production of Haydn’s uniquely personal oratorio, The Creation, fell more than 20 minutes shorter than Karajan’s version, skittering through many of the score’s most memorable and endearing scenes. Over the years, his St. Matthew Passion, like his Mass in B Minor, has also proven dicey.
Bach Festival musicians during the Weil years generally speak warmly and generously of the experience, even when the picture delivered to the ticket-buying audience may seem inconsistent, or even eccentric.
For two decades, Weil has displayed a wide range of reactions to the music he conducts, sometimes seeming fully engaged, at others coolly distant. “Fully engaged” is what most music lovers have long since learned to expect. It wouldn’t take much to extend that quality of expression to Bach while preserving the many riches Weil has contributed to the festival’s legacy.