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A Revelatory Brandenburg 3

Portland Bach Festival
Cathedral Church of St.. Luke
June 23, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Now No. 3 has to be admitted to the pantheon. The performance of the third Brandenburg Concerto by the Bach Festival Orchestra Friday night at St. Luke’s Cathedral came like a revelation, or was it an epiphany?

Scholars have been debating for centuries about the absence of a slow movement in this work, but Arthur Haas at the harpsichord improvised a riff on Bach’s central cadence that showed what had been there all along, inspiring Beethoven to write equally short movements.

A form exists as a frame for the composer, not an edict from on high. A convenient convention.

A discussion over a late dinner at Bao Bao, around the corner from St. Luke’s, centered on what made the Portland Bach Festival, playing works that have been reiterated for 300 years, so fresh and, yes, joyful.

The consensus was that Lewis Kaplan and Emily Isaacson have assembled a critical mass of fine musicians, whose abilities play off one another to create a chain reaction of some kind. The Brandenburg No. 3 seemed almost like a jazz session (in heaven rather than Preservation Hall) with each string section responding and building upon the work of the preceding one.

That they had a work of supreme genius to recreate didn’t hurt either. What Bach does with strings and continuo alone is sui generis. The result had the capacity audience leaping to its feet.

He isn’t bad with solo instruments either, as shown by the opening Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, basically a flute concerto based on a succession of dances. I have only heard flautist Emi Ferguson in works by Bach, but if she is equally good in other classics and moderns, Rampal may have to move over. I want to hear her Debussy.

As she moved from one ballroom to the next, the only question was how she could possibly out-do what had gone before. The spectacular final Badinerie provided a definitive answer.

The Harpsichord Concerto in D Major, with Haas at the keyboard, was equally delightful but too intimate for a large hall, in spite of Rod Regier’s strong and handsome instrument. Except in the cadenzas, it was difficult to hear the delicate nuances of the keyboard part.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the organ was a little too powerful in the Motet: “Jesu, Meine Freude.” But the Oratorio Chorale, under Emily Isaacson, gave an outstanding performance of one of Bach’s most inventive compositions for voice, blessedly without recitative. One could wish for more of the five soloists—Sherezade Panthaki, soprano, Jolle Greenleaf, soprano, Jay Carter, countertenor, Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor,  and David McFerrin, baritone. Sherezade, in particular, has a phenomenal voice. But even at the PBF one can’t have everything.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Bach Festival Sets New Standard

Portland Bach Festival
St. Luke’s Cathedral
June 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

In Phillip Glass’ new autobiography ”Words Without Music, “ he makes a good case for music as a trinity in equal collaboration—composer, performer, audience —(even if the audience is also the performer.)
The second concert of the new Portland Bach Festival, Monday night at St. Lukes’s Cathedral in Portland, had all three in abundance. It also had another sine qua non— fine instruments, including an Amati cello and one of Rob Regier’s magnificent harpsichords, made in Freeport, Maine.
The Bach Sonata for Violin and Basso Continuo in E Minor, BWV 1023, played by Ariadne Daskalakis, violin, Arthur Haas, harpsichord, and Beiliang Zhu, cello, was played at a pitch used by Bach (“A”-415), slightly lower than the modern “A”-440.
The next work, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, BWV 1051, was played at the modern pitch, and all Haas had to do was push a lever on the harpsichord to switch over. Before that I was wondering if Regier, who was in the audience, would have to retune the entire instrument between numbers, or wheel in a new one.
Technicalities aside, the concert made me think I had been away from New York for too long. Nothing is perfect, or the world would come to an end. Still, the Bach Festival, like its predecessor in Bethlehem, Pa, sets a new standard.
Having the concerts in the round, like last night’s in the small rotunda at the back of the cathedral, gives them an authentic intimacy, to say nothing of improved acoustics. The final Brandenburg No. 6, played by a concertino of two violas. Nicholas Corda and Danielle Farina, with a small chamber ensemble, had exactly the right volume and tempo.
Every detail was clear, and the rapport between the musicians, who were obviously enjoying themselves, was a delight to behold. This was virtuosity as play, in a genre that is often taken much too seriously. Bach can be a joy to hear without being any less profound.
Even the pauses between movements would have fascinated John Cage. No rustling, no coughing. You could have heard a pin drop. And there was that tiny fermata after the last note, and before the standing ovation, that signifies a truly musical experience.
The contrast between the concerto and the preceding sonata, played at a lower —and very satisfying— pitch, was a stroke of programming legerdemain. The interplay of violin and cello in the sonata gave a new meaning to the form of basso continuo.
The program began with the Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007, played by Nicholas Canellakis, sounding like an entire orchestra. In spite of dramatic leaps and sudden changes in tonal color, his reading was both relaxed and melodic, setting the tone for what came after.
It was followed by the Trio Sonata from “The Musical Offering,” BWV 1079, by Renée Jolles.violin, Emi Ferguson, flute, Zhu, cello and Haas, harpsichord. I should have been listening for all the appearances and transformations of the tune Frederic the Great gave Bach to improvise upon. Instead, I was watching Emi Ferguson on the baroque flute, looking like a musician from a mosaic uncovered at Pompei.
(I’m sorry I won’t be able to attend the Bach and Beer Festival this afternoon. I hope someone has thought to brew some Bock.)

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.