The third annual Middlebury Bach Festival celebrated the life and music of Johann Sebastian Bach with a variety of concerts and information sessions April 26-28. This year’s festival was the most ambitious and well-attended to date, succeeding in presenting a challenging and diverse repertoire and bringing in a record number of students. Co-founder of the festival Jessica Allen, an accomplished soprano soloist, conductor and leader in the Vermont vocal community, was not surprised by the success of the festival.
“I think the high quality performance of challenging music during this Festival is becoming more and more evident and the word is spreading among students and the greater community,” she said. “People come back for Bach. Once you delve into his music deeply enough, you get hooked both as a performer and audience member.”
The festival began with the College Choir and Chamber Orchestra, who presented a range of repertoire to a record audience in the Concert Hall. The six selections in the first half loosely related to the emotions in the mythical story “Orfeo ed Euridice,” a tale of the trials of Orfeo to find and revive his dead wife, Euridice, with the advice of the Goddess of Love, Amor. The second half of the concert was dominated by the choruses, arias and recitatives of Gluck’s opera. The high-energy performance was grounded by the orchestration and three students soloists, Quinn Bernegger ’13.5 as Orfeo, Erica Furgiuele ’15 as Amor and Elyse Barnard ’15 as Euridice, who delighted the audience with their confident portrayals of the characters. Barnard spoke about soloing for the festival and singing with the choir with excitement.
“It was really an honor singing the role of Euridice,” she said. “The music is just so exquisite. And of course, working with Jeff [Buettner] and being a part of the choir is always a rewarding experience. I can honestly say I’ve never been a part of a greater group — everyone in the choir is so talented and dedicated. We’ve put a lot of time, effort and energy into this performance and it has certainly paid off.”
Saturday began with three interest sessions relating to the evening Bach presentation. Cynthia Huard led the first session, discussing the harpsichord concerto she later performed as the opening piece of the festival concert. Huard is the artistic director of the Rochester Chamber Music Society and serves as an affiliate artist at Middlebury. Her passion for early instruments began when she studied early keyboards, piano and music theory in Austria. Huard, who is regularly invited as a guest performer at festivals internationally, spoke of the challenges and rewards of performing Bach, and seemed extremely enthusiastic for the opportunity to participate in the evening performance.
In the second interest session, Martin Pearlman, guest conductor of this year’s festival, discussed the orchestral suite that would be performed in the evening, the third out of Bach’s four orchestral suites, from 1731. Pearlman is a professor of music and historical performance at Boston University, as well as the founder and conductor of the Grammy nominated and internationally known Boston Baroque, an orchestra and choral group that only uses period instruments. Pearlman’s passion for excellence and historical accuracy was obvious as he discussed how instruments were played and their roles in Bach’s music. Pearlman moved through Bach scores as he demonstrated techniques on the piano and through Boston Baroque recordings, reliving the performance experience as he listened.
“I have had the opportunity to see Martin Pearlman conduct Boston Baroque several times now,” Allen said of Pearlman’s participation, “and to have had him here working with our students and regional professionals was exceptional. It is really top-tier Baroque interpretation.”
The final interest session was a conversation with countertenor Martin Near, the alto soloist for the Bach Magnificat. This discussion provided insight on an emerging and often overlooked voice part. He emphasized Bach’s unique and challenging style, stating that the singer must dig into the music, actively playing with the notes and deciding where to breathe in the complex architecture of the work. The interest sessions gave inside looks into the highly anticipated evening concert from professional perspectives, building hype for the main event.
That evening, classical guitarist Eric Despard provided entertainment for community members in a relaxed, off-campus setting at 51 Main. Many attendees of the festival concert enjoyed his unique interpretations of Bach and other artists while they dined. Despard impressively performed the music memorized, carefully phrasing Bach on an instrument not usually associated with the composer.
Following the event at 51 Main, Mead Chapel buzzed with excitement over the main event. Cynthia Huard took the stage to perform Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor, accompanied by five string musicians. She took to the challenging music with ease, her fingers flying confidently across the harpsichord. The instrument’s unique sound filled Mead Chapel well, nicely complimented by the strings, which carefully accompanied and did not overpower.
The festival orchestra then took the stage, featuring professional and student musicians who performed Bach’s Orchestral Suite in D minor under the direction of Martin Pearlman. Pearlman conducted with sure, swift movements, prompting clean, expressive notes out of the instruments. The orchestra balanced extremely well and showed the physical nature of Bach, musicians moving their heads and feet while engaging with the music. Pearlman elicited a decisive sound of excellence throughout the suite, and ended the first half of the concert on an exciting note.
After intermission, Pearlman returned with the orchestra and College Choir, presenting Bach’s Magnificat. The 12-movement work included rousing choruses and beautiful arias. The musicians brought high energy to the Magnificat, easily filling Mead Chapel with sound and beautifully phrasing the difficult music. Soprano soloist Carol Christensen performed the first arias with ease, producing a full and resonant sound while deftly mastering the difficult notes of Bach. Bass Erik Kroncke filled Mead Chapel with his confident, burly notes, eliciting smiles from the crowd with his recognizable deep voice. Countertenor Martin Near and tenor Adam Hall performed a beautiful duet, generating rare overtones and surprising the audience with Near’s unique high vocal clarity. Hall and Near also performed solo arias, highlighting their mastery of the material and Hall’s rich tenor. Students Suzanne Calhoun ’14, Juliana Kay ’13 and Alyssa Dillon ’15.5 also impressed with their captivating trio performance. The chorus took on a work usually reserved for conservatory choirs, establishing their dedication to mastering a wide variety of challenging repertoire. With the last notes of the Magnificat, the audience responded enthusiastically, eliciting many bows from Pearlman and the performers.
The future of the festival is bright. World-renowned Bach scholar and Middlebury honorary doctorate recipient Christoph Wolff will return in 2014, and Allen is excited about numerous future paths for the festival, like presenting modern takes on Bach’s work.
“Next year I hope to see even more students and faculty involved,” Allen said. “There are so many facets to explore within Bach’s music. The mathematics of tuning systems, historical and political influences on Bach’s music, how dance, language, poetry, visual art and architecture informed the rhythms and virtuosity in Bach’s work – it is all relevant and spans more academic areas than most people realize.”