Roll over Beethoven, Bach is the news in Nashville

bachanaliaBachanalia just gets better every year.

Nashville’s seventh annual Bach fest went off without a hitch on Friday night at Christ Church Cathedral. Hundreds of Bach fans packed the Cathedral for the popular six-hour musical marathon, which featured many of the city’s finest professional musicians performing some of the Leipzig composer’s greatest pieces.

All of the musicians were unpaid volunteers, who played for no other reason than their deep and abiding love for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s hard to think of any other composer who could claim such devotion. Needless to say, the satisfaction one gets from playing history’s most sublimely beautiful music is its own reward.

The highlight of the six-hour marathon was the Portara Ensemble’s deeply felt rendition of the complete Cantata BWV 80 “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Bach wrote this piece probably around 1727 for Reformation Day, basing it on Martin Luther’s famous chorale.  Portara’s artistic director, Shreyas Patel, led his vocalists and instrumentalists in a performance that was both spirited and insightful.

bach-shreyasA gifted bass baritone as well as conductor, Patel performed his recitative “Consider yet, God’s child” with a lovely dark chocolate tone and unfailing sensitivity. Lea Maitlen sang the soprano aria “Come into my heart’s house” with operatic power and a luminous sound. (Full disclosure: Maitlen was recently appointed ArtsNash’s marketing director. Without question, she is the website’s best singer.)

Tenor Derek Meler, for his part, sang with a tone that was pure and transparent; tenor Joshua Post’s and alto Dawn Foster’s voices dovetailed beautifully in the duet “How blessed yet are they who speak God’s truth.” Portara’s instrumental ensemble was equally impressive, playing every note with precision and vitality.

Bach-ChristianThe most formidable solo performance on Friday came from violinist Christian Teal, who played Bach’s incomparable Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004. This work’s final movement, the famous Chaconne, is surely the most challenging single movement in the entire repertoire. It takes 15 minutes to play – as long as the work’s first four movements combined – and calls on the violinist to probe every emotion.

Teal, the first violinist of the Blair String Quartet, gave the Partita a thrilling reading. Performing from memory, he played with a golden tone, flawless intonation and a technique that seemingly knew no difficulty. He played the faster dance movements with vitality and the Sarabande with immediacy and intimacy. He played the Chaconne in the grand manner, with high drama and effortless virtuosity.

Bach was the greatest organist of his day, so it was no surprise that Christ Church Cathedral’s organ got a workout on Friday night. The most extroverted performance came from Jon Johnson, the Cathedral’s associate organist and choirmaster, who played the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 with clarity and remarkable athleticism. Nicholas Bergin, organist at Nashville’s First Presbyterian Church, performed the Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 537 with expressive lyricism. Organists Gayle Sullivan, Andrew Risinger, Gregg Bunn and Marjorie Proctor also gave worthy performances.

bach-roseComposer Michael Alec Rose gave a Romantic, heart-on-the-sleeve reading of the Allemande from the Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV 828. Rose’s performance was part of a lecture-demonstration called “A Closer Look at Bach.” To borrow Tom Wolfe’s description of Leonard Bernstein, Rose is Nashville’s “Village Explainer,” a raconteur who has the uncanny ability to make the most complex musical gestures seem both obvious and entertaining.

Rose noted that the tonality in the Allemande wanders through such far-flung keys as the dreaded E minor and B minor without taking any shortcuts back home to D major. Why? Because that’s what life is, says Rose. It’s a journey. Only pop musicians want to skip the trip and proceed directly back to the home chord. Where’s the fun in that?

When it came to historical authenticity, Bachanalia was essentially ecumenical, if not outright Unitarian.  Any kind of approach – period instrument, modern instrument or even jazz arrangement – was welcome.

There were plenty of first-rate authentic performances. My favorite was cellist Christopher Stenstrom’s interpretation of music from the Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008 on Baroque cello. Stenstrom’s tone was uncommonly rich, and his phrasing was tasteful and elegant.  Another standout was harpsichordist Polly Brecht, who joined the Atlantic Ensemble in a bracing rendition of the Harpsichord Concerto No. 2 in G minor, BWV 1058.

mcguireMy favorite modern player was the Blair School of Music pianist Jennifer McGuire, who played the finger-twisting Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp major with grace and taste (McGuire always makes the seemingly impossible look easy). The evening’s most unorthodox arrangement was the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria,” featuring a jazz combo of soprano saxophonist Sam Levine, bassist Jim Ferguson, drummer Chris Brooks and guitarist Paul Brannon. Their swinging arrangement proved that Bach’s music transcends all styles.

High praise also goes to Susan Dupont, who will be stepping down as a principal organizer and volunteer of Bachanalia after seven years. Her valedictory festival was filled with good times, great music and delicious food. She’ll be a hard act to follow.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.