MUSIC REVIEW: Baldwin Wallace Bach Festival by Philip de Oliveira

Photo by Owen McCafferty

Fri 4/7 & Sat 4/8

The students of the Baldwin Wallace Symphony Orchestra and Festival Choir deserve congratulations for preparing and convincingly performing Brahms’ long and heavy Ein Deutsches Requiem at this year’s 85th Bach Festival. The administrators who decided to skip out on paying a professional orchestra for the entire weekend as in years past, while charging patrons the usual ticket price to hear talented but unpaid students, have some explaining to do.

It’s an odd development given the last three years, in which the festival has evolved to include year-round paid events engineered for broad appeal. The reason for programming jazz and Broadway tunes alongside Bach at these events would be conceptually dubious if it weren’t so transparent: any time a plucky musical theater alum crows at a club or café, the Conservatory rakes in free publicity. Meanwhile, the orchestra and wind ensembles must wonder why they don’t even make the school paper. The small press contingent that attended concerts Friday and Saturday afternoon was notably absent from Saturday’s evening performance, traditionally the centerpiece of the event. I appreciated the extra leg room.

Friday’s evening concert featured a modest ensemble — comprising professionals and students from other area institutions — led by Apollo’s Fire concertmaster Olivier Brault. The evening began with pianist Zarina Melik-Stepanova playing three sets of Bach-Brahms assemblages de pièces before the concert proper. Alternating sections of both composers’ music in related keys made for a beautiful experience that deserved better than the noisy lobby outside Gamble Auditorium.

Once concertgoers settled into the hall, Brault led the orchestra in a buoyant performance of Bach’s third Brandenburg concerto. Nicole Keller on harpsichord was the ensemble’s infallible, enthusiastic heartbeat. Violist Laura Shuster was unfazed by the brisk tempo of the third movement, delivering her brief solos with total ease. And veteran oboist Danna Sundet’s soaring lines in “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis” showed that even existential despair has its own beauty.

But the overall level of string playing, in particular, seems to have declined. The various solos in the Brandenburg — all magnificent and expert — became respites from ritornelli which were badly out of tune. Brault was below pitch throughout the work. However, when he was serenading the audience with selections from Bach’s solo partitas between pieces, Brault proved why he leads one of the best Baroque orchestras in the world. That the partitas were used as tacky “set change” music while music stands squeaked and instruments were pushed around the stage was abominable. The fact that a supreme musician such as Brault was made to deliver it was a travesty.

The most poignant moment on Friday was the pairing of Keller and Melik-Stepanova on harpsichord and piano, respectively. As the final note of Keller’s gorgeous performance of Bach’s Prelude in C Minor, BWV 921 faded, Melik-Stepanova immediately began Bach’s Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543. The two instruments silhouetted each other beautifully, visually and sonically, hinting at some transcendent, mystical truth about the timelessness of great music.

The piano duo of Sophié and Pierre Westhuizen was an exceptional treat. Their meek stage presence gave no hint of their jaw-dropping virtuosity. In addition to performing Bach’s Concerto for Two Pianos at Friday’s concert, they gave their own recital on Saturday afternoon.

The inventive program featured arrangements of Bach works along with music by Shostakovich and Brahms. The latter two were conceptually tied to Bach by way of counterpoint, though, like much of the festival’s program, the comparisons seemed forced; the predictable military motifs, neon-bright octave doublings and hocket figures of Shostakovich’s Concertino for Two Pianos had more in common with the composer’s own second piano concerto than anything by Bach. The recital closed with Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Haydn. Here, the duo’s perfect balance of reverence and playfulness probably mirrored what Brahms must have intended for his variations. At times, their voicing was almost Chopinesque, with an insistent soprano line that kept the inner voices from participating in the musical texture.

Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem on Saturday evening had problems from its transparent beginning, which had low strings and horns exposed and tested the students’ confidence. Under the direction of conductor Octavio Más-Arocas, orchestra and choir alike were propelled toward offensively loud climaxes. Brahms’ “mysterious” chromatics and quick modal changes in the sixth movement of the Requiem were lost in a wash of sound.

Soprano Sherezade Panthaki and baritone Joshua Hopkins gave concertgoers some of the best music of the evening. Panthaki, who has a reputation for specializing in early music and has appeared at past Bach Festivals, was living proof of advice she gave a student the day before: “No matter what kind of music you’re singing, good vocal technique is good vocal technique.” Panthaki transcended technical brilliance, and her Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit was earnest and comforting. Hopkins struggled to overcome his natural charm and breezy manner to infuse his stage presence with gravitas, but his voice was full of yearning and mystery.

The orchestra’s woodwinds were a strong point. Oboist Jacob Hill projected his solos over the group with easy and full sonority across the range of his instrument.

The choir was by far the most consistent student group in the weekend’s concerts. They executed Brahms’ lofty fugue in the sixth movement of the Requiem with total precision, and the orchestra held its own as the voices piled on in angelic antiphony.

The Festival Brass, led by Jack Brndiar, performed musical appetizers drawn mostly from the Renaissance and Baroque before each concert. A student quintet known as the Beech Street Brass included the obvious stars of the Conservatory’s brass studio.

Philip de Oliveira lives in Cleveland Heights and reports for 89.7 WKSU.

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