MUSIC REVIEW: Bach Festival @ Baldwin Wallace by Laura Kennelly

Apollo’s Fire

Thu 4/11- Sun 4/14

The 87th Bach Festival at Baldwin Wallace University celebrated, once more, J. S. Bach’s musical genius and continuing influence. Lately the “tradition” at BW has been to introduce one or another innovation, and this year proved no different, with the invitation of largely non-student performers to present the annually featured works by J. S. Bach.

On Friday night, in what may be the most radical change, Cleveland’s justly (and now internationally) applauded ensemble Apollo’s Fire performed Bach’s Mass in B Minor, BWV 232. In past years, a large student choir and orchestra (supplemented by guest soloists) presented this work.

This year Apollo’s Fire, conducted by Jeannette Sorrell (who also doubled on the harpsichord), offered a polished and moving rendition that featured Amanda Powell (soprano), Amanda Crider (mezzo-soprano), Jacob Perry (tenor) and Jesse Blumberg (baritone), as well as the Apollo’s Singers and Apollo’s Fire Orchestra. It was, as we have come to expect, a vivid (and highly applauded) performance.

Apollo’s Fire used its signature small ensemble made up of professionals. They played baroque-style instruments (as opposed to the more standard large chorus and full orchestra playing modern instruments), a practice which reflects what some believe more true to original performances during Bach’s era.

Each movement was a sparkling, refined delight, as the performance reflected the polished brilliance we have come to expect from the fine musicians that make up Apollo’s Fire. There were many outstanding moments, but for me, the Sanctus (coming near the conclusion) with its responsive nature, seemed an especially convincing reaction to the scriptures and prayers which came before it. The sopranos and altos sang about joy (and reminded us of spring bird calls) while the tenors and basses echoed and exchanged lines (like bells tolling great news).

On Saturday afternoon, another professional ensemble, the sprightly Anderson & Roe Piano Duo, gave a highly engaging program of pieces that ranged between J. S. Bach’s era and our own. In addition to showing how talented musicians could transform pieces written originally for other instruments, the program also implicitly invited comparisons between eras. For example, their two-piano arrangement of Bach’s “Erbarme Dich” from the St. Matthew Passion and John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be” suggested that as statements about life, both bore significant similarities as pleas for mercy.

Other pieces included their own “Hallelujah Variations” (yes, based on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”), “Lo, at Midnight” (from Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras, No. 5), and Astor Piazzolla’s “Primavera Porteña.” Their vastly entertaining website may be found at andersonroe.com. (Off topic note: If you still despair that spring will come, listen to their “What a Wonderful World.”

Other works included on the music-packed weekend included a free presentation of works by Mozart, Bach/Stokowski, and Christopher Theofanidis by the BW Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Soo Han, on Thu 4/11.

On Friday afternoon, the Dirk Garner conducted the Festival Chamber Orchestra and BWV: Cleveland’s Bach Choir, a 16-voice ensemble composed of students, former students and guest singers. They presented four of J. S. Bach’s motets interspersed with movements from Bach cello suites performed by Rene Schiffer. The venue, now Fynette Kulas Music Hall, but once the First Congregational United Church of Christ sanctuary, lent itself to the Bach-centric atmosphere as clear and confident vocalists presented works such as Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225 and Komm, Jesu, Komm, BWV 229. Between the motets, Schiffer, spotlighted alone on a stage off-center, played oft-meditative cello suites, such as Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suite No 2 in D Minor, BWV 1008.

More beautiful presentations filled Saturday evening, when the BW Motet Choir, conducted by Dirk Garner and supported by professional soloists and orchestra presented two Bach works:  Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227 and O Jesu Christ, mein Lebens Licht, BWV 118.

As a farewell to Bach Festival 2019, the BW Singers, conducted by Marc Weagraff, offered selections from Bach’s Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150. as part of the Palm Sunday service at the Berea United Methodist Church.

BOTTTOM LINE: The Baldwin Wallace/Bach connection still serves to highlight J. S. Bach’s gift to the world of music and his continuing influence on works we celebrate today (whether by playing his creations or by the oft-unnoticed derivations underlying today’s compositions).

[Written by Laura Kennelly]

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