Bach and Brahms: Songs of Faith and Songs of Love at SummerFest

Michael Beattie [photo(c) Susan Wilson]

Michael Beattie [photo(c) Susan Wilson]

La Jolla SummerFest’s Bach and Beyond III program (Wednesday, Aug. 21) drafted the human voice to consider both the trials of love and the trials of faith. Love was ably represented by Johannes Brahms’ effulgent song cycle “Neues Liebeslieder Walzer,” Op. 65, and faith was covered by J. S. Bach’s Sacred Cantata No. 99, “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan.”

For consolation from those proverbial slings and arrows of love, Brahms turned to European folk wisdom and the poetry of Goethe. Not surprisingly, for spiritual consolation Bach turned to the flinty theology imbedded in a Lutheran chorale. For its quartet of robust voices to carry out these ministrations, SummerFest turned to the Metropolitan Opera’s roster of up-and-coming singers.

And what a quartet of singers! Last week we heard mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano brilliantly illumine John Harbison’s new song cycle “Crossroads,” so it was no surprise that she mined the dramatic subtext of a Bach recitative with flare (and opulent German!). Nor was it astonishing in her “Liebeslieder” solos that she moved from temptress to shy maiden with aplomb, her warm, freely-produced voice always hinting that there is much more power in reserve, should the occasion warrant it. Carmen, Amneris—watch out for this mezzo!

Tenor Matthew Plenk, a spitfire with a ringing top range, tore into his Brahms’ solos in full operatic armor, yet proved he could successfully navigate the craggiest vocal line in his Bach Cantata aria. When the vocal quartet sang together, it was his voice that gave the ensemble vibrancy. Haeran Hong, an assured Mozartean soprano, proved a more contained soloist, yet it was easy to admire the seamless flow of her voice throughout the compass of her range. Singing with Cano, she held her own, and the two singers made their Bach Cantata duet enchanting, even though its text was didactic and utterly charmless.

Evan Hughes’ edgy bass-baritone displayed bite and snarl. Add that vocal quality to his height and dark complexion, and I predict that opera directors will be lined up outside his door eager to sign him up for those many Satanic roles with which the repertory is blessed.

Providing the vocalists luxurious and deftly appointed support in the Brahms, pianists Joseph Kalichstein and Orion Weiss gave the composer his due. Piano four-hand can easily become turgid, but these performers kept their touch light and textures immaculate.

Conducting Bach Cantata No. 99 from the harpsichord, Michael Beattie rolled chords for the recitatives, but otherwise used his hands to keep his forces together rather than realizing all the bass lines on the harpsichord. Strings from the SummerFest roster along with flute soloist Catherine Ransom Karoly and oboist Peggy Pearson gave a cogent account of Bach’s efffusive instrumental score, while Krishan Oberoi’s Sacra/Profana choir sang the cantata’s opening and closing movements. Well-disciplined and articulate, the 16 voices of Sacra/Profana produced a powerful, Nordic sonority, responding adroitly to Beattie’s precise direction and his odd crescendos at cadences.

Bach’s Cantata No. 99 brought SummerFest’s annual single-composer series within the festival to a resounding climax, although I must add that Sherwood Auditorium is one of the last San Diego venues in which I expected to hear a Bach sacred cantata.[php snippet=1]

Beattie also presided over J. S. Bach’s Concerto in A Major for Oboe d’Amore, BWV 1055, with Pearson again as soloist and members of the Linden String Quartet and bassist Nico Abondolo supporting her. This concerto proved unusually sunny for the Leipzig maestro, and Pearson turned out those endless, serpentine solo lines with great finesse. Abondolo, who also supplied the contrabass line for the Bach Cantata, always proves miraculous in his supporting role, a part of Baroque performance that is easily overlooked. A SummerFest regular since the earliest years of the festival, Abondolo is one of the most inventive and eloquent bassists I have experienced in nearly four decades of reviewing. Bravo!

Pianists Kalichstein and Weiss opened this concert with Claude Debussy’s two-piano arrangement of Robert Schumann’s “Six Canonic Etudes,” Op. 56. Originally written for piano with a pedal clavier, these etudes are sometimes played by organists because that is the only extant instrument that parallels the now extinct pedal piano. I say organists occasionally perform selections from Op. 56 because they are innocuous, to say the least. Although Kalichstein and Weiss lavished great care and solid technique on these mellifluous etudes, I still think they are just this side of soporific.

[box] La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest 2013 ends Friday, August 23, at MCASD’s Sherwood Auditorium, 700 Prospect St., La Jolla, CA 92037. Tickets: 858.459.3728 or[/box]

Bach III Program

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