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 email@example.com.