The Search For Perfection In Bach And Beyond

Artistic Director Maestro Grant Cooper led the 23rd annual Bach & Beyond Baroque Music Festival. Submitted photo

FREDONIA — After a second evening at this year’s Bach and Beyond Festival, held at the historic 1891 Fredonia Opera House, the programming decisions made by Artistic Director and Conductor Grant Cooper for this 23rd season really came into focus. This concert featured works written predominantly by composers flourishing before the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), possibly having an influence-either direct or indirect-on the musical development of the revered Baroque master.

The Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 1, in D Major of Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) was first on the program. This seven-movement work featured Julie Leven (violin), Jennifer Wood (violin), and Bryan Eckenrode (cello) as soloists, in a sweet music that provided considerable contrast to the somber work of Franz Xaver Richter (1709-1789), which opened of this year’s festival. The Baroque shading and contrast were quite apparent in the second movement, including rapid tempo fluctuations that alternated between fast and slow passages. Cooper’s conducting was unobstructive, seemily integrated into the International Baroque Soloists, allowing the musicians to communicate expressively on stage. This yielded a very sensitive and organic ensemble sound, which was particularly noticeable within the penultimate Allegro movement.

The piece that followed was Chiacona by Antonio Bertali (1605-1669), an intimate work of subtle allure and playfulness. This triple-meter set of variations continued the trend of including a chaconne on the first half of this year’s concert programs. For me, this eight-minute composition epitomizes the characteristics shared between Baroque and Jazz music. The piece features seemingly improvised flourishes and ornamentation, gradually increasing in complexity and brilliantly showcasing Leven’s violin technique, over an (exhaustingly) repetitive bass line, performed by the rhythmic continuo. Eckenrode (cello), Brian Walnicki (octave mandolin), and Justin Blackwell (harpsichord) did a stellar job adding a sublime depth of color and nuance to, what could have been, a painfully dull experience. The quartet of musicians used all of their musical prowess to engage and communicate with the audience. What a treat to hear Baroque music played in such a fresh, energetic, and-dare I say-fun manner. It certainly was a crowd pleaser!

Prologue to Dido and Aeneas, reconstructed by Grant Cooper, brought appropriate punctuation to the pre-intermission activities. Essentially, Cooper assembled this work from woven musical elements of Purcell, John Blow (1649-1708), and a little dash of his own compositional creativity to paint an atmosphere akin to what might have been heard in late-17th-century England. The chaconne that begins the work created a lovely bridge between the Bertali and, after several dance-movements, Purcell’s iconic overture. Between each musical interlude there was a dramatic reading of the prologue’s libretto, with characters scattered about the theatre, including Cooper himself speaking from the stage. This reconstruction was a fascinating journey, providing a novel experience to the evening’s events.

After intermission the audience was treated to a performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, with violinist Charles Morey as soloist. Vivaldi (1678-1741) composed numeros concerti that litter the canonic repertoire of Western Classical Music, making them well-known to even passive classical listeners. As with the previous evening’s closing work, the risks in performance, therefore, were high. No live performance is perfect. Perfection is a goal that is impossible to achieve, but artistic beauty lies in the struggle for perfection. Performing familiar works invites added scrutiny, since much of the audience will be bringing a host of prior musical baggage (i.e., previous performances and favorite recordings) to bear. The musicians met this challenge head on, welcoming the opportunity to dialogue with this staple of the Baroque literature, adding a bit of themselves in the process.

On the whole, this was a lovely evening of contrast and repetition. The musicianship and artistic direction, embodying the struggle for perfection, leave me looking forward to the matinee conclusion of this year’s festival.

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Andrew Martin Smith is a composer, clarinetist, and adjunct instructor of music at the State University of New York at Fredonia, where he teaches courses in music theory and composition.

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