Thursday, July 14, 2011
The two-week-long Carmel Bach Festival turns 74 years old this week, and it just got younger. That’s thanks to a guard change at the top of the artistic slots, including incoming Music Director and Conductor Paul Goodwin and Concertmaster Peter Hanson, both Brits who’ve worked with each other for a long time in Europe and England. It’s also by the design of the festival’s director, Camille Kolles.
American composer John Adams once said, of the 1983 debut of his Grand Pianola Music at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall: “A large part of the audience quite aggressively booed it. It virtually sticks its tongue out and wags its ears at the extreme good breeding and extreme good taste of ‘high art,’ which is something that had become so oppressive, so intimidating, that it was threatening its own extinction.”
When Adams’ statement was relayed to Kolles, she connected immediately.
“I’ve been trying build a bridge for classical music to reach the wider population for 18 years,” she says. “I want to build that bridge. That’s when the music comes alive.”
She got the opportunity in 2008, when she became the executive director of the Carmel Bach Festival. And the opportunity compounded with the recruitment of Goodwin, following the departure of Bruno Weil last year after a 19 years as the festival’s music director and conductor. It’s a new era for the festival: In its three-quarter-century history, Goodwin is only the fourth music director/conductor it has seen.
New Concertmaster Peter Hanson, Goodwin’s right-hand man in their first foray as artistic leaders of an American classical music festival, describes Goodwin’s conducting style, which informs his curatorial style, too, as flexible: “Paul’s very free, open-minded, not dogmatic. He goes with the flow. He likes creating exciting situations.”
That attitude flows with the festival’s direction toward accessibility, fusion, quality, youth, relevance, vibrancy and fun. It’s an evolution that brings centuries-old music into the 21st century and makes the two play together. To a classical music-loving home base like Carmel, in possession of a storied musical tradition like the Carmel Bach Festival, finding the balance between the fresh (luring, inspiring and replenishing the audience) and the traditional (the supportive, established base who have sustained the festival this far) can be tricky.
“Our goal,” Kolles says, “is to transcend traditional concert presentation boundaries while still celebrating the works and genius of Bach.”
That balancing act is precarious when the reputation of the composer approaches Bach’s stature.
In Michael Lawrence’s 2010 documentary Bach & Friends, which was screened at the Bach Festival last year, a lineup of top-flight musicians and composers share what Bach means to them.
Composer/pianist Philip Glass tells the camera, “Bach articulated the lines of music in the most complete and richest and complex form than any single person has ever been able to do.”
Mandolinist Christ Thile is more visceral: “It just absolutely slams you in the heart or gut… It’s music that fires on all cylinders.”
Pianist Simone Dinnerstein is more contemplative.
“My love for Bach is as close to religion as I get,” she says. “If you go and you lie down in the country at night and you look up at the stars and you don’t know what any of it means and you’re just looking at this huge vista. I would say his music is like that.”
The festival visits many composers – Schubert, Handel, Purcell, Brahms, Copland, Beethoven, Vivaldi – but Goodwin singles out Bach as “universal”: “His music resonates with everybody. You ask any modern classical composer about their foundation and it usually comes down to Bach, the architecture, the beauty of his lines.”
Hanson describes Bach as a flashpoint of the right time, culture and talent.
“He was the culmination of the Baroque era,” Hanson says. “He tied it all up. He perfected it. The great thing about these geniuses is you can listen to these guys over and over and it sounds fresh.”
Sounding “fresh” is a mission the Brits intend to bring to the festival.
“Classical music comes with a reputation for formality and stuffiness,” Goodwin says, “which I don’t think it deserves. One has to break down those barriers. I’m not a great fan of concerts being too formal or reverential.”
Kolles says Goodwin is “absolutely grounded in early music.” And while the 26 intimate performances of chamber concerts and recitals under the purview of chorale director Allen Whear stay faithful to the tradition of the festival’s past, Kolles says, “The [artists] don’t just crack open the 1700s and pluck from there.” But sanctioned by Kolles, and seconded by longtime festival singer and dramaturge David Gordon, Goodwin and Hanson have slightly turned the wheel on the direction of the festival in the programs they are steering.
“Bluegrass musicians play Bach, jazz players play Bach,” Goodwin says. “Elton John loves Bach. You can play Bach on anything and it works. Whatever instrument, whatever tempo. Bach is indestructible.”
For maybe that reason, he’s enlisted novel musical fusions in this year’s line-up of 85 returning and new players: a jazz/classical fusion concert featuring pianist Stephen Prutsman (8pm July 21 and 28; see story, p. 20.); jazz tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, who performs a West Coast premier of an anti-war work by contemporary composer Mark Anthony Turnage (8pm July 22 and 29); and, in a coup of timing and circumstance, the whiz kids of the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, performing with Lovano 8:30pm July 24, as a kick-off to a West Coast tour.
Other new sounds in the Bach festival repertoire include a variety of other early music to contemporary composers (Bach represents only 30 percent of the festival’s performances); a sly but telegraphed injection of modern music, including a commissioned piece, into programs of early music and classical music; a narrated musical program of English composers (8pm July 19 and 26); and a musically faithful but visually “staged” take on Bach’s monumental St. John Passion (2:30pm July 17 and 24).
“If you close your eyes [at St. John], it’s traditional,” Goodwin says. “If you open your eyes, it’s not.”
Another way the new guard is repositioning the festival is by simply inviting new audiences: untapped masses of people who do not normally attend classical music performances.
Bach’s artistic reputation – as a genius, a force, a catalyst, a rarity, a titan – can often precede the actual music (of which there are more than 1,000 known compositions), and intimidate people who are not familiar with or used to classical and early music. Kolles, Goodwin, Hanson and Gordon want to remedy that, both for the sake of keeping the music alive and present, and to share the beauty and the bounty that they and others derive from the music.
“You fall in love with it, deeply, when you realize its qualities,” Hanson says of classical music. “You can’t help it.”
Bach, he adds, represents classical at its best.
“If you listen to a melody that Bach plays, it feels like it’s been there forever, and he’s just written it down. A Bach melody feels like it has a real amazing foundation so it can float, it can fly. You sink right into it.”
The number of Bach Festival concerts – 45 in two weeks, each priced between $29 and $71 – might cause pause for those who have never attended. But the festival heads offer specific advice and directional guides with their invitation to the musical buffet, which duplicates itself in week two like an encore, offering a second chance to catch acclaimed shows.
Dramaturge David Gordon says it’s his job, as historian, instructor and lecturer of the festival, to “help people find the power of the music.”
“Every main concert has a pre-talk with me. And if there’s any singing, we project the English language text above the performers, even the ones sung in English. You’ll be able to understand every minute of it. It’s not a snooty atmosphere. [Attendees] won’t feel like outsiders.”
“I think a lot of young people like classical music, but often the formality puts people off,” Hanson says.
Goodwin addresses that succinctly. “People like to dress up,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, the audience can wear whatever they like.”
Other accessible entryways into the festival: two film screenings, which are inexpensive and followed by Q&As; the many free pre-concert talks; two panel discussions and a lecture on “Baroque Sensibilities in Contemporary Rock & Pop Music” (10:30am July 26); discounted student prices; the free 20-minute Tower Music brass performances prior to nearly every main concert; and the free performances in Salinas (7pm July 25), Seaside (7pm July 28) and Carmel (5pm July 29).
Hanson recommends, for new arrivals to classical music, listening to a piece repeatedly to “unlock it,” at which point the live performance can reap deeper, more substantial rewards.
“I think [the uninitiated] are missing out, but don’t realize they’re missing out,” he says. “Classical music is more of a spiritual, emotional experience. You have to listen, and listen, to enjoy all the intricacies.”
“[The festival] is an event, an experience, not just a thing,” Gordon says. “We sell an experience that involves ideas, emotions and sound. If you come to one of our concerts, we will get inside your heart and you will leave a little bit different.”
If that sounds daunting, Kolles offers another approach: “There’s a real joy and playfulness that happens. It’s not grim, it’s summertime.”
The Carmel Bach Festival takes place July 16-30. Go to www.bachfestival.org for details and complete schedule.