Philadelphia's Bach Festival

More Bach for your buck

Zohn: Double threat.
Zohn: Double threat.

The annual Bach Festival of Philadelphia has sometimes stretched over two or three weeks and several widely scattered venues. This year, its enterprising director, Matthew Glandorf, managed to survey the range and variety of Bach's output in a single three-concert weekend confined to one central location.

The Friday night opener launched the festival with two of Bach's cheeriest vocal works"” the Wedding Cantata and the Coffee Cantata.

The Wedding Cantata evokes spring, pleasant breezes and other images that befit its subject. The Coffee Cantata is, as Glandorf noted, the silliest piece created in the 18th Century"” the story of a young woman so addicted to coffee that she'd rather forego marriage than give up caffeine.

Julianne Baird and her partners, tenor Aaron Sheehan and baritone Matthew Knickman, had a good time waving Starbucks containers as they sang, but the cantata transcended fun and games. Glandorf didn't neglect the complexities that characterize Bach's scores, even one as frivolous as this.

Flutist and scholar, too

The evening's highlight was the program's instrumental work, Bach's second orchestral suite. This suite contains a flute part so lengthy and prominent that it's become one of the major works in the flute repertoire. Steven Zohn produced one of the best performances on the Baroque flute I've heard.

Zohn is a double threat Baroque specialist: a nationally prominent Baroque flutist as well as a Temple University professor whose scholarly achievements include a definitive book on Bach's colleague, George Phillip Telemann. The wooden baroque flute is softer, hollower and less intense than the modern metal flute, but Zohn's sharp attacks, clear phrasing and strong sense of the composer's intentions created a performance that was just as lively as the best performances produced by modern flutists.

Rearranging the master

The second concert provided another example of the scholarship, musical imagination, and performing skill that supports the best early music performances. Gwyn Roberts and Richard Stone, directors of Tempesta di Mare, took six of Bach's trio sonatas for organ and arranged them for different combinations of winds, strings, harpsichord and lute.

The trio sonata was the standard Baroque chamber form. It's called a trio because it's composed for three voices"” two melody instruments and an accompaniment. The accompaniment, however is usually played by two instruments"” a bass instrument, such as the cello, which plays a bass line, and a chording instrument, such as the harpsichord, which fills in the harmonies.

In Bach's organ trios, the organist's hands and feet take on all four tasks. To transform the trios into multi-instrument chamber pieces, Roberts and Stone had to select appropriate instruments, change the keys to fit the instruments, and sometimes make more extensive additions and alterations.

Two parts simultaneously

Three of their arrangements were orchestrated for standard trio sonata ensembles such as violin, recorder and accompaniment. The fourth sonata, on the other hand, became a duet for lute and harpsichord, with Stone playing a bass part as well as a melody part on his lute, usually at the same time.

Sonata Number Six became a mini-concerto for the high-pitched sopranino recorder, with Gwyn Roberts's recorder pitted against two violins. It wasn't quite as hypnotic as Vivaldi's sopranino concertos, but it brought the evening to a dashing close.

Baroque musicians routinely rearranged pieces and changed the instrumentation. Modern arrangements of their works require scholar-musicians steeped in a tradition that died 200 years ago and blessed with creativity and taste. The result in this case was a parade of variety and inventiveness that showcased the talents of Tempesta di Mare's leading performers.

Baroque at its bounciest

The Sunday concert ended the festival with the third orchestral suite and two examples of the kind of religious music most of us associate with Bach.

The third suite is a particularly good choice for a festive final concert, since it ends with a gavotte, a bourree, and a gigue"” three of the bounciest and most likeable dances in the Baroque repertoire. The two Baroque oboes in the ensemble, played by Geoffrey Burgess and Stephen Bard, rang like trumpets.

The two religious pieces were both short Latin masses: the Missa Brevis in A Major and the Missa Brevis in F Major. The vocal solos scattered through both masses included affecting work by sopranos Jessica Beebe and Clara Rottsolk, countertenor Bryan DeSilva, and Julianne Baird's Friday night partner, baritone Matthew Knickman.

Religious exuberance

Both masses ended with some of Bach's best expressions of exultation. The A Major reached its grand finale with a sonic Bachanalia, with the flutes warbling over a whirl of sound, the sopranos bursting with joy, the men adding their assent, and the strings providing a warm foundation. In the F Major, the men started the festivities, and two valveless natural horns, wielded by Todd Williams and Linda Dempf, supplied a heraldic touch that underlined the majesty of the religious vision associated with the exuberance.

Baroque composers frequently dedicated their work "To the Glory of God." When you hear two finales like that in one afternoon, you understand why.♦


For another review of the Coffee Cantata by Steve Cohen, click here.