Review: Baldwin Wallace Bach Festival Opening Concert

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by Timothy Robson

A new era began this weekend for the revered Baldwin Wallace Bach Festival, now in its 83rd season, with a new artistic director, Dirk Garner, and orchestral conductor Octavio Más-Arocas. In any such transition the new regime has the opportunity to assess tradition and determine the direction forward. If the first concert of the 2015 festival on Friday, April 17, in BW’s Gamble Auditorium, is any indication, the organization is in good hands, with a vivid sense of imagination and purpose, yet not losing track of the past.

The Baldwin Wallace Symphony Orchestra and Festival Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Más-Arocas, gave a lively and provocative concert of mostly contemporary music based on or inspired by the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. A lovely performance of a Bach solo cantata was in the mix for good measure. Each work was imbued with a sense of theatricality, sometimes literally, other times metaphorically.

Funeral Music for Queen Mary (after Purcell), by American composer Steven Stucky (b. 1949) opened the program with a slow procession by a brass quartet and snare drum down the darkened auditorium aisle playing the march from Henry Purcell's own Funeral Music for Queen Mary, preceded by dancers carrying (fake) candles. The full ensemble of winds, brass and percussion takes over the march and develops it, accompanied by huge pounding hits on a large bass drum. The music morphs into an arrangement of the anthem “In the Midst of Life We Are in Death.” The music becomes more chromatic and “hazy” with the lines overlapping and drifting apart. The march returns at the end, in a blazing chorale, with thundering on the bass drum . It made a powerful, almost frightening impression.

Bach's Cantata No. 170, Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, featured the fine young countertenor Eric Jurenas and a chamber ensemble of strings, oboe, continuo and solo organ. The text is drawn from the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus exhorts his followers to love one another. Jurenas has a bright, light voice, and he easily negotiated the wide tessitura of the solo part. The intricate solo organ part sparkled as played by BW organ faculty member Nicole Keller on the sweet-sounding Ruggles continuo organ. Accompanying the music was LottDance, a quartet of modern dancers, who performed during all four movements of the cantata, expressing a variety of moods, choreographed by Jennifer McQuiston Lott. Others can judge the quality of the choreography. My eyes (and ears) were more drawn to the musicians. With both dancers and musicians on the relatively small stage, there was almost too much visual stimulation.

The brilliant second half of the program took some of J.S. Bach's most famous works and subjected them to modern treatment. Headless Snowman by Tom Trapp (b. 1980) was wild, based on the two-part Invention in F Major.  

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