The North Carolina Bach Festival was launched in 1979 with a performance of The Passion According to St. John in Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. For a number of years it found a home in Christ Church, where a superior pipe organ provided aural comfort for those sitting in the Episcopal pews, and where it was possible to project festive spirit and concentration, too, by holding the event across several days each spring. Many outstanding artists came to perform, many outstanding local and regional ensembles participated. Early on, there was an annual program devoted to performances by young artists and youth groups. The NCBF defied the odds by projecting a unified front formed from disparate and often uneven parts. But despite support from many distinguished citizens and despite the fact that the focus of the undertaking is one of the greatest musicians and composers in the history of the universe (and that's no hype), the Bach Festival has never become the artistic and social force some people who have watched it since it was hatched had anticipated. It's hard to say precisely why. The lack of a permanent home has surely played a role. Less than spectacular funding support has been a factor. Spreading the offerings throughout the season, rather than concentrating the event across a single weekend, may be diluting the net results.
In any event, we have Christopher Bickers and Elisabeth Chopinet to thank for the NCBF's continuation in recent years and for the Festival's three-concert 2006-7 season, which got underway in Ruggero Piano's Bösendorfer Hall in North Raleigh on the afternoon of October 15. The program was devoted to works for solo instruments and small ensembles and featured guitarist Ed Stephenson, who teaches at Meredith College, pianist Salam Murtada, who represented North Carolina in the 2004 edition of the Cliburn Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, and long-time Raleigh resident Judith Bruno, soprano. Pianist Nancy Whelan was the assisting artist.
The program was unusual in that only the soprano aria that brought the concert to a close was performed on what might be called an original instrument.
Things got underway with the Sarabande from the Cello Suite No. 1, S.1007, one of the Master's most serene melodies, and one that – like much of Bach's music – lends itself handsomely to being played on something other than cello. Guitar works extremely well, and Stephenson cast a spell with his performance. There followed the Prelude from S.998, originally for lute – the piece consists of a prelude, a fugue, and an allegro, and it would have been nice to have heard the whole thing, but the prelude worked well enough and made a nice pairing with the opening selection. Nancy Whelan then joined Stephenson for a performance of Vivaldi's well-known Lute Concerto in D. The sound from the Bösendorfer grand complemented the guitar nicely, and Whelan never overpowered the soloist. There was warm applause from the small audience.
Bach's "Italian Concerto," S.971, works very well on piano, as opposed to klavier – indeed, some listeners prefer it in "modern" guise. Murtada played it well enough, although there were tempo fluctuations in some of the faster passages. In a sense, this and the Vivaldi concerto, too, put the players at a bit of a disadvantage, since recordings of both scores by major artists are ubiquitous. Still, there's much to be said for hearing music like this done live, and there was a tangible sense of immediacy in the hall as the afternoon progressed.
This continued after a brief intermission when Murtada returned to essay the charming French Suite No. 5, in G, S.816. This admirable collection of brief dances suited the soloist nicely, and the music unfolded delightfully.
The formal part of the program ended with a performance by Bruno and Whelan of the opening aria from the Cantata No. 51, written "For the 15th Sunday after Trinity and for Any Occasion." The cantata is named for the first line of the opening number, which is the aria "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen" ("Praise God in all Nations"). It would have been helpful if the text and translation had been included in the program or if the work had been introduced with the gist of the meaning, but few present can have missed the music's joy. (The text and a translation may be found at http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV51.htm.)
At the conclusion of this relatively short program, Murtada offered as an encore Schumann's Arabesque, Op. 18, observing that the composer was indebted to Bach.
The NCBF will continue with a youth concert on January 21 and a program featuring soprano Florence Peacock on February 18. We'll include details in our calendar in due course.