A Look Bach
Taking stock of the Carmel Bach Festival’s new groove.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
Paul Goodwin, the Carmel Bach Festival’s new music director, is widely recognized as a Baroque specialist, exactly what a Bach festival would be looking for. Only the Bach festival in Carmel has long stretched its programming beyond the Baroque. Goodwin was game in his inaugural year, putting together a lineup of music that ranged from his putative specialty right up to the 21st century, from J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion of 1724 to Mark Anthony Turnage’s A Man Descending of 2004, with pastoral symphonies by Beethoven and Ralph Vaughan Williams in between.
In London, Goodwin was a sought-after oboist who, in the 1990s, performed and recorded with The English Concert, an acclaimed ensemble that specialized in Baroque performance practice and instruments. (Goodwin’s musicality is documented in CDs on the Archiv label, as is the violin playing of Peter Hanson, the Bach Festival’s new concertmaster.)
In a recent email exchange with Catherine Bott, a Baroque-specializing soprano and program presenter on BBC Radio 3, she commented, “I’ve always admired Paul Goodwin, who hasn’t had the acclaim he deserves over here.” She was referring primarily to his work as a conductor.
Goodwin’s impact on the Bach Festival was immediate and startling. He displayed a fresh vision of the Passion of Christ, drawing on the story’s inherent drama and Bach’s vivid musical reflection of it. Arriving audience members were taken aback to see the stage filled with people milling about, talking softly, dressed in casual attire, jeans, untucked shirts, Birkenstocks. Suddenly, this motley crowd morphed into an orchestra on one side, and chorus opposite.
Instead of the usual concert production, this one exploded into a fierce stage work, one in which the line between the chorus as an angry crowd and the same group as faithful believers was drawn sharply. In another departure from tradition, the character roles (Jesus, Pilate, etc.), the “evangelist” who narrates and the quartet of four aria singers all sang from memory, and moved about the stage as would actors in a play. Goodwin led the ensemble at Sunset Center with a sense of theater and urgency, and at conclusion got an immediate standing from a stunned audience.
For the Friday program, the orchestra swapped out its Baroque instruments for modern ones, and gave a warm but sparkling reading of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony. Goodwin displayed all the conductor’s tricks that give music both its life and its magic. He contrasted dynamics, where soft and loud stand as opposite poles with multiple shades between, to create a 3-D image. He advanced melody and rhythm that are often concealed by the bigger picture. He balanced harmonies so they functioned as intended. He phrased lines to illuminate the conductor’s conception. He maintained the rhythmic pulse as steadily as a heartbeat within elastic pacing. Unlike far too many podium stick-wavers, Goodwin didn’t miss a one.
In the Vaughan Williams Pastoral, pervading sorrow for friends lost in World War I is made nostalgic and comforting through its English folksongs, numerous cameo solos and haunting modal harmonies. Inserting the Turnage piece between the third and fourth movements, and prominently featuring the room-filling tenor saxophone of jazzman Joe Lovano, was a masterstroke. Inspired by Vaughan Williams’ famous The Lark Ascending, but with its own distinctive style, it drew phrases from that work, then subsided seamlessly into the symphony’s finale. Thus, a most welcome, fresh and exciting new era has been launched in Carmel.
THE 2011 CARMEL BACH FESTIVAL ends July 30. For more information, visit www.bachfestival.org.