Back to Bach

Above, the Bach Festival in recent years included packed stages; this year players will be spaced out. Below, the poster from the very first Carmel Bach Festival in 1935.

Coincidence,” as Albert Einstein once observed, “is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

If that is true, then the founding of the Carmel Bach Festival is an object lesson in divine anonymity. For what are the chances that two women from diverse backgrounds would unite nearly a century ago to create the festival we know and love today?

Ethel Adele Denny, who went by Dene Denny, was born in 1885 and grew up on a roadless, remote homestead in the northernmost California county of Siskiyou, near Mount Shasta. She grew up in ranch life – with horses, cattle, chickens, the frontier kitchen – but by the time she graduated with an English degree from UC Berkeley, she’d become an accomplished pianist, specializing in avant garde classical music. When she was in her 30s, Denny gave the American premiere of atonal Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg’s 1921 Piano Suite Opus 25, the first-ever composition using the 12-tone method. It was a highly experimental system of organizing notes that still sounds edgy, even today.

Hazel Watrous was also born in 1885, in Santa Cruz. Her father sold photography services to tourists on the Capitola boardwalk. Watrous studied art and theater set design, graduated from San Jose Teacher’s College, then became a high school teacher.

In 1920, both women quit their teaching jobs. They both moved to San Francisco, into the same apartment building. They met in 1921, setting off a 34-year creative partnership that would forever change the landscape of the arts on the Monterey Peninsula.

First they took over the third floor of a sumptuous Victorian mansion in the city where they produced a theater series and concerts. Next, in 1923 they identified a parcel on San Carlos and 4th in Carmel where they began building their dream cottage.

Locals took note of their architectural style and they were deluged by requests; thus Denny and Watrous Design was born. The firm designed and built more than 30 homes in Carmel. As they continued to design homes, they started to produce art shows and concerts in many of them.

Four years after they first came to Carmel, they were fully established. In 1927 they not only produced a season of plays at the original Golden Bough Theater, they also established a resident theater company in California’s First Theater in Monterey. And while they had already produced many standalone concerts, they went on to produce their first-ever series at the San Jose Civic Auditorium. The success of this venture led them to found (and fund) the Carmel Music Society, whose mission continues to this day to bring the world’s finest classical music artists to Carmel.

It was eight years later, in 1935, that the Carmel Music Society named its four-day concert series the Carmel Bach Festival, and a new star was born.

Their intent was to feature a different composer every year, with plans to make 1936 the Carmel Mozart Festival, but audience response led them to keep the Bach moniker. (The nonprofit Carmel Music Society also still exists today, and launches its season on Oct. 24, the second day of the Bach Festival, with a jointly produced concert featuring pianist George Li performing Bach, Beethoven and Liszt in a free concert.)

In 1938, they hired the festival’s first artistic director, Gaston Usigli. Usilgli is credited with building a high-level community orchestra capable of tackling technically difficult scores.

“Each of the artistic directors we have had made a very specific contribution, almost as if it was choreographed,” says Bach Festival spokesperson Scott Seward. (It was not.)

For example, when Hungarian conductor Sandor Salgo took over from Usigli in 1956, he transformed the unpaid, amateur community orchestra into a highly skilled professional orchestra and chorale, enabling the festival to import players from around the world. This change elevated the festival from a local event to the international status it still enjoys.

It was Bruno Weil, who became artistic director in 1991, who recognized that the festival needed to upgrade its performance space. He presided over an extensive remodel of the Sunset School, transforming it into the Sunset Center theater of today.

But the growth of the festival aside, each director noted a gradual decline in the classical genre’s ability to win over new generations of listeners. Salgo, Weil and current director Paul Goodwin (see story, p. 34) all began to offer more experimental programming, alongside old favorites, to appeal to younger listeners.

Besides those slowly evolving changes in content, this year’s festival will feel different in structure due to Covid safety. There will be fewer musicians onstage. The concerts are short – an hour or less – with no intermissions. No meet-and-greets, no afterparties.

There’s also been less rehearsal time, but Goodwin is feeling positive about this year’s lineup. In addition to the revered B Minor Mass by Bach, plus two of his famed Brandenberg concertos, some lesser-known gems are indeed included this year.

“We’re doing Handel’s rarely performed Ode to St. Cecilia,” Goodwin says. “The Wagner piece is one of the most beautiful, most serene works in the entire canon. And don’t miss Fire and Grace’s The Spirit of Spain, which overlays Bach’s cello figures upon traditional flamenco rhythms with renowned flamenco dancers live on stage.”

The addition of dance is just the newest genre-expanding element in the 86-year history of the festival.

“When you go to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival these days, they don’t only do Shakespeare anymore,” Goodwin says. “They’ve established that as the foundation and they build upon it. Similarly, our foundation lies in Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Mozart. We’ve established that beautifully. But we must continue to build upon that to remain relevant.”

CARMEL BACH FESTIVAL happens Saturday, Oct. 23-Friday, Nov. 5. Sunset Center, Carmel. $11-$89; masks and proof of vaccination required. 624-1521,

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