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]The music of Bach, viewed by all but the most rabid culture haters as one of the supreme masters of Western art, can mean all things to all people. Perhaps because of its own inner strengths, it seems able to withstand all sorts of arrangements and treatments. On the afternoon of September 23, the North Carolina Bach Festival, which for 22 years has sought to advance the cause of Bach and his contemporaries in our midst, offered in Raleigh's Moravian Church the last of three programs of its 2001 season. It was a decidedly mixed bag in which young artists and artists not so young performed music by Bach, Handel and Vivaldi with only varying degrees of success. The star of the show was cellist Gal Nyska, the prodigious teenager who has been championing Bach's solo cello suites hereabouts for most of the year. His reading of the First Suite, in G, served to remind us that talent does not exist only among the elders of our community. His performance was, as others have been, in other venues, spellbinding. He is technically assured and blessed with artistic understanding beyond his years. He is definitely worth seeking out and hearing. This artist has a future.
Soprano Catherine Charlton was heard in arias from two Bach cantatas and one of Vivaldi's operas. There were no texts or translations but the sacred pieces were readily enough comprehended and she spoke a translation of the operatic bit before singing it. Aside from a minor train wreck at the end of the Vivaldi, the renditions were admirable. She has a fine, light instrument that soars easily into the stratosphere and moves with the agility of true coloratura sopranos. She was accompanied in "Mein gläubiges Herze" (mauled in the program) by pianist Linda Velto, who played a somewhat boomy upright (although its resonance may have been due to the sanctuary), and in "Herr, deine Güte reicht" (likewise mauled) by Velto and violinists Meg Lell and Ted Wagner. In the Vivaldi, her partners were the same keyboardist and cellist Michael Bridgers. Needless to say neither composer wrote for the piano as we know it, never mind an upright one; here and elsewhere, historically informed performance practice was disregarded. As we've noted, however, Bach is resilient, and he can withstand almost anything if the spirit is sincere and the flesh isn't weak. For that reason, a reading of the slow movement of the D Minor Concerto for two violins, played by the same fiddlers and also accompanied by Velto, worked reasonably well.
Alas, the playing of the Cary-based Esprit Ensemble conveyed neither spirit nor liveliness nor ensemble in a truly dreadful performance of Third Brandenburg Concerto that dragged along interminably. It was arranged for string quartet by one Lynne Latham; if all the players present for the concert had been mustered for it, and if its presumed tempo indications had been heeded, things might have been a little better. As it was, the poor intonation and frequent lapses in ensemble made this a trial of considerable proportions. The group's reading of four movements of Handel's Water Music, arranged by the same person, was marginally superior, due to part to the brisker pacing, but neither work was ready for public performance, never mind prime time. As we have noted in connection with other performances here, we must do better or not bother.The Bach Festival began in 1979 with a great event that it was my pleasure to attend for another paper, and through the years I have heard many of their offerings. Despite a series of artistic leaders, the organization has never managed to inspire much public support, and that's a shame, for Bach's music is certainly worthy, and a well-organized, well-run Festival, featuring performances by first-class artists (of which there are a great many here--imports wouldn't be necessary) could be an extremely valuable adjunct to our musical lives. Hope springs eternal.