New works, old masters resonate at Bach & Beyond

The 19th annual Bach & Beyond Festival continued its concert series Saturday evening at the 1891 Fredonia Opera House with music written and inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach and his family.

Bringing performers from across the country together with several of the world-class music faculty members at the State University of New York at Fredonia, the festival’s director, Grant Cooper, created an inventive and thought-provoking program of music that connected the world of Germany in the 18th century with western New York in the 21st century.

Grant Cooper began the “Bach & Before” pre-concert discussion by talking about composing a new work for tonight’s concert, entitled “Homage to Bach.” It’s not often that the conductor of a festival is also a composer, so the audience was lucky to learn about the music from the perspective from the point of view of both the interpreter and the creator at the same time.

Not only did Cooper musically spell out Bach’s name in musical notes, but also the names of the people who make the Opera House run smoothly – Executive Director Rick Davis, Technical Director Daniel Allen and Business Manager Marsha Finley – a wonderful effect that created a very special and personal connection between the work, the ensemble, the composer and the community.

We also got to hear about the storied history of one of the Festival’s violinists – Yuliyan Stoyanov – and how he came to the United States from Bulgaria.

The concert commenced with Cooper’s “Homage to Bach,” written for the 10-member string consort of the International Baroque Soloists. Maestro Cooper did a wonderful job of explaining all of the various melodic representations he talked about in the pre-concert discussion by presenting examples of each motive with the orchestra before the performance – I am positive that the audience was appreciative of this primer before they heard the work. The piece itself is a strong addition to the repertoire, as it effortlessly moves out of a pungent introduction into several different sections, each reflecting different aspects of J.S. Bach’s style; lush chorales, energetic fugues, and solo figurations were all on equal footing throughout the work. Cooper has effectively balanced the compositional techniques of the Baroque with the harmonic and dramatic concepts of today’s world and I can imagine a great many ensembles wanting to perform it in the future. The performance itself was spot on – one could tell that the performers had an extra urgency with the composer standing a few feet in front of them conducting and the result was truly inspiring.

As with Friday’s concert, the second work on tonight’s concert was a sonata for solo instrument and continuo – this being the Sonata in G by Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach. Cooper had explained the previous evening that the younger Bach had been the court composer to King Friedrich II of Prussia who played the flute, so much of his repertoire was created so it could be played by the wind instrument.

This evening’s performance paired up two of Fredonia’s music faculty – flutist Susan Royal and harpsichordist Sean Duggan – along with cellist Bryan Eckenrode. Duggan is just returning from a year’s leave from teaching and it was a real treat to get to hear him perform with Royal again.

The Baroque era is replete with works for oboe, and so it is no surprise that the Festival tends to feature at least one or more works for oboe. Saturday’s nod to the double reed instrument was the Concerto for Oboe in E-flat by C.P.E. Bach and it brought to the stage one of the performers who has played with the Festival throughout its 19 years, Cheryl Bischkoff. Equally at home with contemporary works as she is those from the 18th century, Bischkoff executed the solo part with a fine sense of line and tone. The solo oboe soaring over the 11-piece ensemble supporting her created a beautiful and wistful musical experience throughout the work and her solo cadenza at the end of the first movement was especially moving.

The first work after intermission, “O Mensch, bewein dein Sunde gross” was originally written by J.S. Bach as a chorale prelude for organ. The work incorporates a melody that was written 200 years previously by Matthias Greitter and the entire prelude was arranged for strings 200 years after Bach wrote the original organ work by Max Reger, and it is this string version that the International Baroque Soloists performed tonight.

On first listen an audience member would not guess that the piece was written for anything other than the string ensemble performing the work – the arrangement by Reger is masterful and the performance by the ensemble was dark, rich and nuanced.

The plaintive tone of the viola is one that is easily associated with the music of J.S. Bach and so it was quite interesting to hear two violas perform a chamber work by the elder Bach. The Ten Two-Part Inventions were not originally written for two violas, but tonight’s version was arranged by the performers, David Rose and Brian Walnicki. To shift from a large ensemble like the Reger arrangement to such an intimate duet is a hallmark of the Festival and tonight’s performance brought forth the best contrasts between the two – Rose and Walnicki obviously enjoy performing together and do so with both technical skill, emotional sensibility and more than a little swagger.

C.P.E. Bach wrote his Concerto for Harpsichord in G minor at the age of 36 in his first year as court composer under King Friedrich II of Prussia; this was early enough in the younger Bach’s career that his father could have heard it (though it is not known if he ever did). The very idea of a concerto had been slowly evolving over the previous decades and there are several instances where the solo harpsichord is allowed to lapse back into its more traditional role of continuo instrument (doubling the bass instruments) – something that would never be found in later Classical concerti of Mozart or Haydn. The work is an excellent vehicle for the keyboard talents of Duggan, who seems to be able to switch between underpinning accompaniment and solo cadenza without any visible effort at all. It is easy to imagine this work being performed in the great halls of Prussia over 250 years ago, but it is all the more special that it is being performed at this level in our own hall here in Fredonia this weekend.

The Bach and Beyond Festival concludes today at 3 p.m. at The 1891 Fredonia Opera House, 9 Church St. in Fredonia. Tickets are $20 for each individual concert. Tickets can be purchased in person, online at www.fredopera.org/tickets, or by telephone at 679-1891.

Rob Deemer is an Associate Professor of Music Composition at the School of Music, SUNY Fredonia