A Rich Bach & Beyond Performance at the Fredonia Opera House

The 1891 Fredonia Opera House sang once again with the music of the Baroque era Friday night with the 18th annual Bach & Beyond Baroque Music Festival under the direction of Maestro Grant Cooper. Founded in 1996 by Cooper, the festival continues its tradition of exploring the music of Johannes Sebastian Bach, Georg Frederic Handel, and their contemporaries as well as newer music inspired by those master composers. This year that new music has been arranged and composed by Cooper himself, who is celebrating his 60th birthday and his performances in Fredonia which now span five decades.

As always, there was a standing-room-only pre-concert “Bach & Before” discussion an hour before the concert. The special guest tonight was violinist Julie Leven – normally the guest speaks of a work they’re soloing on that concert, but Julie was asked to speak about a project she introduced our audiences to last year called “Shelter Music Boston.” Founded by Leven and now in its fourth year, Shelter Music Boston is a non-profit organization that brings chamber music every month to five homeless shelters in Boston. Hearing her describe the intense reactions those audiences give to their performances brought home in a real and direct way just how dedicated Julie is to her art and to her community. For more information, go to www.sheltermusicboston.org.

The concert proper began with a rarely-performed concerto for the oboe d’amore by Georg Philipp Telemann – rarely performed because the instrument (slightly larger than an oboe but smaller than an English horn) is itself a very uncommon instrument today. That being said, the first movement of the concerto in particular was as finessed and as flawless as one could imagine. Soloist Cheryl Bishkoff – one of two instrumentalists who have performed in all 18 festivals to date – demonstrated a wide dynamic and emotional range and seemed to particularly enjoy the lyrical lines in the first and third movements. Her skill on the instrument made it all the more shameful that there aren’t more performance opportunities for the unique sound. Cellist Bryan Eckenrode and harpsichordist Karl Paulnack brought a light and poignant touch to the third movement and Cooper provided just enough direction without micro-managing (the subtle entrance of the ensemble at the end of the third movement was one of the highlights of the evening).

La Follia by Arcangelo Corelli is, in some ways, very much like today’s pop music, in that it is based on a chord progression that repeats over and over. Cooper explained between pieces that this work’s progression has been used by many composers over the past 300 years as the foundation for their works, so it was interesting to hear Corelli’s early interpretation. The performance featured Jennifer Wood on violin, and her soaring, plaintive sound shifted in character from hushed and melancholy to vigorous and nimble. The continuo duo of Eckenrode and Paulnack seemed to relish their part, especially when Corelli had them echo the violin’s virtuosity.

It’s rare for these concerts to not have at least one work by J.S. Bach on the program and this was no exception, as Cooper himself arranged a movement – Contrapunctus VIII – from Bach’s massive work The Art of the Fugue for a trio of violin, viola, and cello (demonstrating Bach’s influence on Cooper as a musician and composer). The trio, made up of Margie Cooper on violin, David Rose on viola, and Amber Ghent on cello, gave a stately balance between a blended ensemble and a combination of three soloists. One’s attention was continually and enjoyably drawn from one line to the next with all three performers taking turns with the melodic material.

The final work on the first half was the cantata Lontanaza crudel (“Cruel separation”) by Tomaso Albinoni. Performed by soprano Janet Brown and accompanied by Eckenrode and Paulnack, this work was dark and understated, which allowed it to contrast well with the other works on the program. Brown’s voice was definitely well-suited for the role and she evoked as much emotion as the piece provided.

After the intermission, guest soloist Heidi Morey gave an impressive performance of George Frederic Handel’s Concerto for Harp. While the harp is much more common than the oboe d’amore from the first half, it is also quite uncommon to hear it performed in works from this time period. One thing that immediately leapt out was the lack of harpsichord in the ensemble sound; after so much harpsichord in the first half, the replacement of the harp within the overall texture was a delicate surprise. Morey maneuvered through the solo passages with ease and the maturity of her performance belied her age; Cooper announced only after the performance that she is only 15 years old (she’ll be performing works on tonight’s and Sunday’s concerts as well).

The final work, Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso, was a musical version of deja vu – if you felt like you’d heard it before, it was because Geminiani had chosen to take the Corelli work from the first half of the program and write it out for a full ensemble. Kudos to Cooper for allowing the audience to view the same material through two different lenses – we don’t get that chance very often in one concert. The sound was obviously much more broad and complex than Corelli’s trio version and while it provided much more power and substance during the robust sections, it didn’t have quite the haunting quality that violinist Jennifer Wood brought to the earlier performance.

The Bach and Beyond Festival continues tonight at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the 1891 Fredonia Opera House (9 Church Street in Fredonia). Tickets are $20 for each individual concert. Tickets can be purchased in person, on-line (www.fredopera.org/tickets/), or by telephone (716-679-1891).

Rob Deemer is an assistant professor at the School of Music, SUNY Fredonia