Portland Bach Festival
Episcopal Church of St. Mary
June 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
Like Oscar Wilde, I have very simple tastes: I am always satisfied with the best. Such as the Portland Bach Festival’s performance of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 at St. Mary’s Church on Sunday.
I was brought up on that and the No. 5, on what I now realize was a bad recording (better than nothing), and have never missed an opportunity to hear it once again. Sunday’s rendition by the festival orchestra under Lewis Kaplan, with soloists John Theissen, piccolo trumpet, Emi Ferguson, flute, John Ferrillo, oboe and Renée Jolles, violin, was quite simply the best I have heard.
It also flirted with danger, setting a rapid tempo in the first movement that only the most experienced of soloists could maintain accurately. Thiessen was phenomenal in his melodic and unstrained negotiation of a score that gives most trumpet players nightmares.
A little clarino goes a long way, and Bach wisely omitted the part in the second movement, providing room for some limpid and graceful work by the remaining trio, led by Ferguson, whose attitude reminds me of the musicians on Greek vases. She can also hold her own with the piccolo trumpet; some passages in unison almost made the timbres of the two instruments sound the same.
The third movement echoed the virtuosity of the first, but more so, ending in a standing ovation by an overflow crowd. (Other music lovers could watch and hear the program gratis on a large TV screen outside.) Inside the church, the acoustics were remarkable, every instrument in the concerto clearly identifiable.
The evening began with the Bach Cello Suite in C Major, BWV 1009, in an outstanding performance by Paul Dwyer, making the most of the contrast between open and stopped strings, as Bach intended. The contrasts also emphasized the sonic distinction of the baroque cello on which he was playing.
The evening ended with a fine performance of the cantata “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben,” BWV 147, with Festival Choir-in-Residence, the Oratorio Chorale, and soloists Jolle Greenleaf soprano, Jay Carter, countertenor, Steven Caldicott Wilson tenor, and David McFerrin, baritone.
This seems Maine’s year of the countertenor, with effective use of the high male voice in Negro spirituals, a Gluck opera and now a cantata. It is a welcome addition, but it was matched by the clarity and enchanting inflections of Greenleaf in the soprano aria “Bereite dir, Jesu…”
Of course, what most of he audience was waiting for was the chorus and orchestra in “Jesu , joy of man’s desiring.” They were not disappointed, and showed their appreciation with the longest standing ovation I have seen at St. Mary’s.
There’s more to come this week. See the schedule on www.portlandbachfestival.org. and hope that there are still a few seats available.
I was unable to hear Kaplan last week in the famous Bach Chaconne, so I played Brahms’ piano transcription for the left hand (which Kaplan recommended over the better-known Busoni). It was lovely, and pretty authentic, but my left hand almost fell off after the final bar.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.