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Concert Review: Portland Bach Festival beautifully open to interpretation



In its quest to bring the music of Bach and his contemporaries to every corner of Portland and its environs, the Portland Bach Festival has already presented performances this season at a bowling alley, two churches and a social hall on the city’s waterfront. On Thursday evening, the festival took over the acoustically vibrant sanctuary at Etz Chaim Synagogue, in the Maine Jewish Museum.

The shape of the program was much like that of the festival’s Sunday evening opener: One of the six suites for unaccompanied cello opened the program, as an extended prelude of sorts, followed by chamber concertos (branching out, this time, to included one by Bach’s prolific contemporary, Antonio Vivaldi) and ending with one of Bach’s sacred settings (or, in this case, excerpts from one that would, in a complete performance, have taken about three hours).

The cellist this time was Beilang Zhu, who gave a commanding account of the Suite No. 2 in D minor (BWV 1008). Like her colleague Paul Dwyer, who gave an exciting performance of the Suite No. 3 in C major (BWV 1009) at the opening concert, on Sunday, Zhu uses a period cello.

But the two players have very different sounds and styles. Where Dwyer exploited the Baroque cello’s bright, textured timbre, Zhu produced a deeper, heftier tone, closer to that of a modern cello, though with an occasional edge that came as a reminder that she was using the instrument’s earlier form.

And where Dwyer focused on the dance impulses that drive each of the suite’s movements, Zhu offered a high-energy, pressurized traversal that treated the suite’s dance characteristics as footnotes, and instead, embraced the full works as a unified whole – a strikingly different approach than she took at last year’s festival, when she played the Suite No. 6 in D major (BWV 1012).

Given a choice, I prefer Dwyer’s approach, but Zhu’s performance had a compelling, virtuosic grandeur. And one of the great things about this festival is that it is non-dogmatic. It celebrates the fact that musical interpretation is not monolithic.

That was even more apparent in the performance of the Violin Concerto in E major (BWV 1042), in which Lewis Kaplan, the festival’s founder and artistic director, was the soloist. Kaplan, at 83, has seen countless changes, both evolutionary and revolutionary, in Bach performance style. That may account, at least in part, for the festival’s openness to different and sometimes even antithetical interpretive approaches, to say nothing of the fact that it presents period and modern instruments side by side.

Kaplan used a modern violin in a performance that was softer-edged and less relentlessly driven than is the current fashion in Baroque playing. It recalled a time when Bach was seen, above all, as the most regal of the composers in classical music’s pantheon, and though the young players in the supporting ensemble take a different view – as was evident from their own performances later in the evening – they followed Kaplan’s lead unequivocally.

After the intermission, flutist Emi Ferguson, violinist Ariadne Daskalakis, Zhu on cello and Arthur Haas at the harpsichord, gave a trim, vigorous reading of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D minor (RV 96), all using period instruments. Most notable among these was Ferguson’s wooden traverse flute, which produces a very different sound – more rounded, more organically flexible – than the modern silver flute she played in Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 2, on Sunday.

The performance was dazzling, its best moments having the quality of a jam session, in which Vivaldi pitted virtuosic violin and flute lines against each other, leaving it to the players to outshine each other in one flighty passage after another. Ferguson and Daskalakis responded vigorously to the challenge.

Both players also made vital contributions in the concert’s final group, playing the obbligato lines in arias from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” (BWV 244), just about – but not quite – wresting the spotlight from a fine group of vocal soloists. The best of these were countertenor Jay Carter’s graceful rendering of “Erbarme dich” and tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson’s passionate reading of “Geduld, Geduld,” but the contributions by soprano Sherezade Panthaki and baritone David McFerrin were also beautifully projected and vocally pleasing.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland.


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