Bach & Beyond features Sean Duggan

One of the highlights of Western New York in June is the Bach & Beyond Baroque Music Festival at the 1891 Fredonia Opera House. Now in its 19th year under the direction of Grant Cooper, Friday’s concert demonstrated the Festival’s continued dedication to bringing world-class performances of music to the Fredonia community. This year’s festival, landing on Father’s Day weekend, is focusing on the father and son combination of Johann Sebastian Bach and his son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, and Friday’s concert featured one of the strongest interpreters of Bach’s music, Fredonia’s own Sean Duggan.

I’ve always been impressed at how many audience members attend the pre-concert “Bach & Before” talk that occurs an hour before each concert, and this year was no different. Tonight’s talk featured Maestro Cooper interviewing Sean Duggan about the music of J.S. and C.P.E. Bach and the instruments that Duggan often performs. Head of the piano area at the State University of New York at Fredonia, Duggan spoke about performing Bach on the instruments that Bach would have originally used – the harpsichord and the fortepiano – as well as today’s modern piano. Those in attendance reveled in Cooper’s descriptions of the inner workings of the instruments and Duggan’s stories of J.S.Bach writing works for the newly composed “fortepiano” (the precursor of our modern instrument) and helping the makers to sell their instruments with his music. Cooper also spoke about the concept of authenticity and how the Festival strives to balance a respect for how the music was originally played with the excitement of new and fresh interpretations.

The concert started off with an attractive performance of the Sinfonia in C by Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach. C.P.E Bach does not have the name recognition of his father today, but during his life he was much more well-known and is seen as an important force in the transition from the more florid Baroque style of his father to the more simple and direct Classical style that we associate with Josef Haydn and Wolfgang Mozart. The middle movement featured a sumptuous duet between violinists Julie Leven and Jennifer Wood, at times alternating statements and others harmonizing Bach’s floating melodies, while the first and third movements included several “shocking” harmonic twists and melodic interruptions (which Maestro Cooper made sure to warn the audience about beforehand).

The festival consistently showcases a strong and varied program, often alternating larger ensemble works with smaller chamber works. Following his son’s Sinfonia was the elder Bach’s Sonata for Violin in E with violinist Julie Leven, cellist Amber Ghent, and Sean Duggan on the harpsichord. Leven negotiated the intricate lines with an intensity and energy that our audiences have come to expect and enjoy from her many performances in the Festival. More than once she played so quietly one felt that the performance was intended only be heard between the three performers, which only heightened the intimate nature of the work. While it was ostensibly a feature for the violin, Ghent and Duggan had their hands full with a virtuosic continuo part that lifted the nature of the work from solo with accompaniment to a true trio of three distinct and emotive voices.

The first half of the concert concluded with another work by J.S. Bach, his Prelude and Fugue in A minor.

Cooper mentioned in his comments that this particular work was chosen because the material in the Prelude was reworked by Bach into the first movement of the Concerto that would be performed at the end of Friday’s concert. That may be one good reason, but any excuse to hear Sean Duggan perform Bach in a solo format is a good excuse – Duggan is considered by many to be one of the foremost performers of Bach’s solo keyboard works and tonight’s performance was unsurprisingly good. The harpsichord is a notoriously difficult instrument to play well (the fact that the keys cause the strings to be plucked rather than struck with felt hammers on a modern piano makes it especially challenging) but Duggan made it seem effortless, allowing the audience to simply be enveloped by Bach’s intricately cascading lines.

Following the intermission, the concert continued with two chamber works: the Sonata ‘ deux violins by Jean-Marie Leclair and several movements from “Twelve Waltzes” by Domenico Dragonetti. Before the performances, Cooper explained that they were chosen as part of the “Beyond” concept of the festival – in this case, as examples of music that was composed during Bach’s life and in the decades after his death in 1750. The first work featured longtime Festival violinists Smiliana Lozanova and Yuliyan Stoyanov. While the work was probably written by Leclair for one of his students to play along with himself, tonight’s performance was anything but pedantic; the husband-and-wife pairing on this work was both vigorous and tender, bringing forth the stark beauty of two voices both separate and together.

The second work was a rare treat, as the low contrabass is not often featured as a solo instrument in such concerts. In his introduction, Cooper pointed out that Dragonetti was born a year after Leclair died, which allowed the audience to experience through music the combined experience of two men’s lives that spanned almost 150 years. Dragonetti was one of the first true virtuosi on the contrabass and his works still remain a staple component to the instrument’s repertoire. Tonight’s performance by Festival stalwart Jon Pascolini showcased the various facets of the lowest member of the string family and allowed the audience to enjoy its unique color and texture away from its traditional supportive role.

The Concerto in A minor for flute, violin, and harpsichord was technically written by Johann Sebastian Bach, but it was not written originally as a concerto. The material in the first movement was borrowed from the Prelude that Sean Duggan performed in the first half and the second movement includes musical ideas taken from an organ sonata. The instrumentation is identical to that of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and not only featured Duggan on the extensive harpsichord part but Fredonia flute faculty member Susan Royal and violinist Margie Cooper. All three soloists were brought to the fore at different times throughout the work, and though the harpsichord was the most prevalent (not surprising due to the keyboard history of the material), both Royal and Cooper sang beautifully over the ensemble. A special mention must be made toward the delicate trio in the middle movement – Royal, Cooper, and Duggan made that particular work shine in what was for this listener a highlight of the evening.

If there was anything confusing about the concert, it would be how such a top-notch concert could be happening in one of our community’s main venues and yet there are so many empty seatsthere are few opportunities in Chautauqua County or western NY this weekend that match the level of these performances. That being said, I was pleased to see a healthy balance between younger and older audience members and I wholeheartedly recommend both Saturday’s and Sunday’s concerts as must-see artistic events for the weekend.

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 St., 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 Associate Professor of Music Composition at the School of Music, SUNY Fredonia