By ALLAN KOZINN
The artistic directors of the Portland Bach Festival, Lewis Kaplan and Emily Isaacson, knew they had a hit long before the end of last summer’s inaugural season. Partly because of the timeless draw of Bach’s intricate, virtuosic and enduringly popular music, and partly on the prospect of hearing Portland musicians join forces with superb players, including several early music specialists from New York and Boston, the festival concerts not only sold out, but also created the buzz its founders hoped for.
Moreover, the alternation of formal church concerts and informal events like “Bach & Beer,” which let listeners hear performances while nursing a brew, reflected both the sacred and secular sides of Bach’s work while also establishing the festival’s personality as open-minded and a little freewheeling.
Kaplan and Isaacson quickly built on that success. The second season’s formal opener, on Sunday evening at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary in Falmouth, was preceded by three days of the new Bach Virtuosi Institute, a teaching seminar for young musicians, as well as “Bachtails,” a cocktail concert at Bayside Bowl, a bowling alley. And since potential ticket buyers were turned away at last year’s packed opening concert, this year the festival offered a “Bach on a Blanket” option: Concertgoers with lawn tickets could watch the performance on a screen outside the church.
The performances were magnificent, some of the best Bach playing I’ve heard anywhere. The tone was set by cellist Paul Dwyer, who opened the program with an energized, thoughtfully conceived account of Bach’s Suite No. 3 in C for Unaccompanied Cello (BWV 1009).
Bach’s works for unaccompanied cello and violin are small miracles. They take instruments that are best suited for single musical lines and transform them into miniature chamber groups, with involved figuration that suggests contrapuntal textures, as well as double- and triple-stops, in which the player is asked to create chords by bowing across multiple strings.
It’s a lot to ask in terms of sheer technique, but the real trick is grappling with all that while also producing a shapely musical line that also honors the spirit of each movement. The Cello Suites, after all, are built of dances, and although they are concert works, the characteristics and rhythms of those now archaic dances have to be felt.
Dwyer’s performance had it all – stateliness in the Prelude and Sarabande, generally brisk tempos and sharp accents in the Allemande, Courante, Bourée and Gigue, and a clear sense of each movement’s kinetic qualities. You might not know how a Bourée was danced, but in Dwyer’s reading, you had a clear sense of the dance’s driving pulse.
Dwyer used a period cello – that is, one without the metal spike that lets players of the modern version rest the instrument on the floor, and with differences in the strings and bow. His sound was warm, focused and perfectly tuned, but in place of the flat, smooth tone of a modern cello, he produced the textured timbre, with a slightly bright edge, more characteristic of the 18th century model. It was a joy to hear a Baroque cello played so beautifully.
The festival is not dogmatic about period timbres, though, so for the “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 2 in F (BWV 1047), the ensemble used mostly modern instruments. This is the most extroverted “Brandenburg,” and the ensemble here played it with such precision and fire that debating the merits of old versus new timbres would be beside the point.
The solo playing, by trumpeter John Thiessen, flutist Emi Ferguson, oboist John Ferrillo and violinist Renée Jolles, was both virtuosic and imaginative. In a work this familiar, soloists often seem to be in their own orbits, playing flashily but independently, the right notes by rote. Here, the interactions and dialogues were consistently vivid and engaged, and the balances between the soloists and the compact ensemble had a fluidity that made the performance irresistibly vital.
The program’s second half was devoted to a suitably robust reading of the Cantata 147, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben,” with the Oratorio Chorale joining the ensemble, and Kaplan on the podium. The fine slate of vocal soloists included soprano Jolle Greenleaf; countertenor Jay Carter; tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson and baritone David McFerrin.