Bach Virtuosi Festival
Cathedral Church of St. Luke
June 24, 2018
by Christopher Hyde
The Bach Virtuosi Festival, which ended its third season Sunday night at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, has a way of changing one’s mind about Baroque compositions as a whole, not only those of J.S. Bach.
I was never enthusiastic about Handel operas, but the arias performed by soprano Sherezade Panthaki, countertenor Jay Carter, and trumpeter John Thiessen, were absolutely ravishing.
Handel works a text to death, crams it with fiendishly difficult ornamentation, and the result is a trip to heaven. If performance is all, I had never heard these works before. The combination of a great soprano and an equally fine countertenor provides some amazing effects, indescribable in words, while Panthaki’s voice imitates and surpasses “uplifted angel trumpets” in an aria from “Samson.”
Old J.S., who never met his contemporary, in spite of several attempts, was not to be outdone, however. The Brandenburg concertos are all equally works of genius, but some are more equal than others. Numbers 2 and 5 used to be my favorites, but after hearing the fourth, with flautists Emi Ferguson and Laura del Sol Jimenez and violinist Renee Jolles, supported by the festival’s outstanding chamber orchestra, I’m no longer sure. If Portland’s virtuosi festivals continue, we will come to love all of them to the same degree. or maybe, “if I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near.”
The revelations never stopped. Organist Katelyn Emerson, from Maine and now a native of the world, provided a stupendous performance of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565), that brought a large audience leaping to its collective feet. In her hands, the Skinner organ of St. Luke’s is indeed a phenomenon. It seemed, which is impossible, to have the physical volume control of a pianoforte, the ability to alter stops instantly in call-and response passages, and voices reserved for J. S. Bach alone.
The articulation of its cascades of notes was as crisp as that of a Steinway grand. “The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer.”
A pair of Rob Regier’s harpsichords from his Freeport studio took center stage with Arthur Haas and Gabriel Shuford in a performance of the Bach Double Harpsichord Concerto in C Minor (BWV 1069).
This is one instance where the cliché about Bach’s music being for intimate venues applies to some extent. Regier’s harpsichords are not only beautiful, but powerful, yet their sound faded the farther back in the pews one sat. Perhaps harpsichord, or clavier, solos should be presented in the smaller chapel of St. Luke’s. The performance of the concerto itself, one of my favorites, was up to the festival’s standards of excellence (and infectious excitement). Distance only made one listen more closely.
When I was working for ad agencies I would visit New York weekly, with some light excuse, to hear music or go to the ballet. I never heard anything as good as what Lewis Kaplan has brought to Portland. Let us all hope that it continues.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.