Bach Week Festival opens 46th season in style

Sat Apr 27, 2019 at 10:37 am

By Tim Sawyier

Johann Sebastian Bach's complete Brandenburg Concertos were performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Wednesday night at the Harris Theater.
Bach Week Festival opened Friday night at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston.

Like most composers of his time Bach was a gifted improviser at the keyboard. So in a way it is fitting that the annual Bach Week Festival opened Friday night with some improvisation of its own. 

The wife of harpsichordist Jason Moy gave birth to their first child—Nicholas David Moy—the previous evening, calling him away from the festival’s opening night performance at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston.

Fortunately, the Bach Festival was able to prevail upon longtime collaborator and Chicago musical fixture David Schrader to step in for Moy on short notice. Beyond scrapping Moy’s scheduled solo opener—Antonio Soler’s Fandango in D Minor—and reordering the program, the last minute substitution appeared to have minimal impact on the proceedings, which got the 46th season of the annual series off with nary a hitch.

The most substantial offering Friday night was Bach’s “Wedding Cantata,” O holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit, BWV 210 (not to be confused with the smaller-scale wedding cantata Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten, BWV 202). Soprano Josefien Stoppelenburg was a game and comely soloist, some intermittent pitch problems in her upper register notwithstanding. The first aria “Spietlet, ihr beseelten Lieder” went best, with Stoppelenburg’s flexible timbre nicely suited in Bach’s expansive writing. By contrast, the oboe d’amore and violin obbligati in “Ruhet hie, matte Töne”—played by Judith Lewis and John Macfarlane, respectively—felt too romantically agitated for an aria whose lyrics mean “rest here, weak notes,” and the intonation across the ensemble never really settled.

Flutist Alyce Johnson’s solo contribution in “Schweigt, ihr Flöten” was fluent and idiomatic. Stoppelenburg projected the aria’s tongue-in-check humor, acting with increasing exasperation as she time and again implored, “Be silent, you flutes,” as Johnson played seemingly endlessly. The closing “Seid beglückt” hit the appropriate conciliatory, celebratory tone, with longtime festival conductor Richard Webster overseeing his capable colleagues with subtle leadership and minimal interference here as throughout.

Two concerti comprised the second half after the program’s rearrangement. Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C Minor, BWV 1060R, featuring Macfarlane and Lyric Opera principal Judith Kulb was the strongest outing of the evening. Kulb played with exquisite, smooth tone throughout, yet provided a slight edge where Bach’s dense textures call for it, and Macfarlane played with incisive panache. The two soloists were at times somewhat mismatched stylistically, Macfarlane playing with more inflection than Kulb, but this was a minor debit to an otherwise high-caliber performance.

Vivaldi’s Concerto for Violin, Two Oboes, Bassoon, and Two Horns in F Major, RV 569 closed the evening in lively fashion. The outdoorsy outer movements went with élan, horns Jon Boen and Robert Johnson providing the requisite hunting flair. Macfarlane’s solo playing in the wistful central Adagio—where the continuo drops away leaving only a supple bed of upper strings in support—was exquisitely elevated.

The only real casualty of Moy’s sudden indisposition appeared to be Bach’s Sonata in G Major for Harpsichord and Viola da gamba, BWV 1027, with which Anna Steinhoff and Schrader opened Friday’s concert. Given the limited ranges of both instruments, musical interest in such a combination often comes via subtle manipulations of timing dictated by careful attunement to harmony. 

This was absent from the pair’s performance, no doubt a function of extremely limited rehearsal time. The playing of each was pristine but fell a bit flat. This difficulty was exacerbated by the work itself—a reworking of a trio sonata, which strands the gamba part between bass and treble lines in the harpsichord.

Bach Week Festival continues 3 p.m. Sunday at Nichols Concert Hall with “Virtuoso Soloists.” On offer are Bach’s Overture No. 2 in B Minor, Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, and Keyboard Concerto No. 3 in D Major with pianist Sergei Babayan, who also plays two suites of Rameau.

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