Bach & Beyond continues to shine at the Fredonia Opera House
By ROB DEEMER
Special to the OBSERVER
Saturday night saw the second of three Bach & Beyond Festival concerts presented at the 1891 Fredonia Opera House under the direction of Grant Cooper. In this special concert, the repertoire literally spanned five centuries – from the 17th through the 21st – as the sounds of violas, oboes, harpsichords and more violas reverberated throughout the Opera House, culminating with a unique and contemporary interpretation of the “La Follia” material introduced to Friday’s audience with a composition by Cooper himself.
The “Bach & Before” pre-concert talk featured cellist Bryan Eckenrode, one of the three individuals (along with Cheryl Bishkoff and Cooper) who have performed with the Bach & Beyond Festival since its inception in 1996. Eckenrode is a stalwart member of the western New York and northwestern Pennsylvania music community as a member of the Western New York Chamber Orchestra and the Southern Tier Symphony as well as a member of the faculties of Canisius College, Niagara Community College, Jamestown Community College and Villa Maria College. Longtime Bach & Beyond soprano Janet Brown also was on hand to discuss her experience in teaching as well as her work as a Baroque specialist and the new work that she was to perform later in the evening.
The concert began with a work by a composer who lived after the Baroque period, the Concerto for Viola in E-flat by Alessandro Rolla. Whereas the typical Baroque ensemble heard last night included a continuo (harpsichord, cello and sometimes bass) with violins and violas along with the soloist or occasional woodwind part or two, the Rolla stood in sharp contrast with no harpsichord and a much more traditional wind section (flutes, oboes, bassoon and horns). The style and ensemble notwithstanding, the highlight of this performance was its soloist, violist and SUNY Fredonia faculty David Rose. The viola is an instrument that is never given as much attention as its smaller and larger cousins, the violin and cello, but in the hands of a master performer such as Rose it transcends those comparisons and allows the listener to enjoy its savory character on its own terms. The entire performance was highly polished, but where the brilliant solo cadenzas in the first and second movements were immensely captivating.
After having all those musicians on stage, Cooper chose wisely to follow the concerto with a thoughtful and lithe performance of George Frederic Handel’s Suite in D minor by Karl Paulnack. Paulnack, who is nationally-renowned as an arts advocate and administrator as well as a pianist and harpsichordist, will be starting a new chapter of his career this fall when he begins his tenure as the new dean of the Ithaca College School of Music. It’s been fun over the past three years I’ve heard these concerts seeing him in a primarily accompanimental role, only to discover how much of a leader he is in the music community throughout the year and this subtle and effortless performance of Handel’s solo work was a fine reminder of those qualities.
Cooper seemed determined to give the viola its due this evening, so he brought back Rose on stage along with fellow violist Brian Walnicki to perform a relatively brief but satisfying duet for two violas by Wilhelm Friedemann. The effect of the two violas together emphasized how rich and dark some Baroque music can be – it was not overtly emotional in the typical sense, but it was not cold and analytical either. Rather it was, as many of these Baroque works can be, simple statements of musical material, each exploring its own mood without overdoing it. Both Rose and Walnicki seemed to really enjoy collaborating on the work together, which was in and of itself a treat to behold.
The first half of the concert concluded with another fine performance by oboist Bishkoff, this time with the Sonata in C minor with continuo by Paulnack on harpsichord and SUNY Fredonia faculty member Laura Koepke. As the previous evening’s performances featured cello with the harpsichord to create the continuo for each work (the 17th century equivalent of a jazz or rock band’s rhythm section), it was a delight to hear Koepke shape her own continuo part so that it supported Bishkoff’s erudite performance while still standing on its own as a solid musical statement.
Friday night’s concert featured two works – La Follia by Arcangelo Corelli and Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso – that were based on the same harmonic progression and tonight’s concert explored yet another work that was similarly structured. Entitled Follies d’Espagne, it was a re-imagining of the Corelli by both Ferdinand David and violinist Leopold Auer. This newer version was much more athletic and virtuosic than the Corelli original and violinist Yuliyan Stoyanov did a wonderful job exploring the myriad characters within the piece. Paulnack served as “continuo” on this performance as well, but since this “re-imagining” was completed in the early 20th century, he performed the accompaniment on piano to great effect.
As Cooper mentioned yesterday, this year represents his five decades of bringing music to Fredonia and he decided to perform a Cooper original, A Song of Longing, Though, premiered nine years ago as part of the Bach & Beyond Festival, to demonstrate how J. S. Bach has influenced him not only as a conductor and performer but as a composer as well. Setting a text by author Tom Beal, Cooper has created a mysterious and enticing piece for soprano and chamber orchestra, (he alluded to a full orchestra version which I’d be very interested in hearing) that the Bach & Beyond players brought to life with intensity and care. One connection that this work has with the rest of the program is its use of a recurring harmonic progression – a passacaglia in the music vernacular – that was similar to that of the La Follia in character but more complex in structure and modern in its use of chromaticism. Brown brought her usual lyrical flair to bear here and it was obvious how much she’s lived with this piece over the years. A triumphant ending to a very satisfying evening at the Opera House, and one that will hopefully inspire a full house for Sunday’s concert!
The Bach and Beyond Festival concludes Sunday at 3 p.m. at The 1891 Fredonia Opera House (9 Church St., Fredonia). Tickets are $20 for each individual concert. Tickets can be purchased in person, online (www.fredopera.org/tickets/), or by telephone (716-679-1891).
Rob Deemer is an assistant professor at the School of Music, SUNY Fredonia