I remember attending the 1979 formative concerts of the North Carolina Bach Festival in venues near the Capitol square. It has since struggled, in part, due to increasing competition from the regions’ expanding arts choices. This 38th Season is “under new directorship with a rejuvenated mission and bigger, bolder program.” This year’s concert program announced expansion to concerts by “four featured artists’ concerts spreading from Raleigh to Greensboro to Charlotte.”

This first Featured Artist Concert was held in the spacious sanctuary of White Memorial Presbyterian Church and showcased performances from the recipient of the N.C. Bach Festival Young Artist Elfrida Halbig Memorial Award, and the distinguished pianist William Wolfram.

Many music lovers have heard Wolfram in concert at the Eastern Music Festival where he is part of the piano faculty. He was a silver medalist at both the William Kapell and the Naumburg International Piano Competitions and a bronze medalist at the prestigious Tchaikovsky Piano competition. He has several CDs of Liszt transcriptions on the Naxos label.

The concert opened with a solid Adagio from Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor, S. 1001 by J. S. Bach performed by 13-year old Luke Henderson, this year’s Halbig Award winner. He played with confidence and secure intonation.

Wolfram preceded his main selection with a contemplative performance of Ferruccio Busoni‘s 1898 transcription of Chorale No. 3 “Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland,” S. 659. Tempo and phrasing seemed ideal, and the low notes of the Yamaha CFX Concert Grand Piano were suggestive of the 10 Chorale Preludes origin for the organ.

The worst myth about the origin of the Goldberg Variations was that Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk (1696-1764), the Russian Ambassador to the Saxon Court, wanted Bach to compose a set of variations for his harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-56). Instead of serving as a “musical sleeping-draught,” Bach’s first biographer Nikolaus Forkel (1749-1818) wrote in 1802 that they were “in order to be cheered up a little …to be soothing and cheerful.” He insisted that the count rewarded Bach with a gold goblet and a hundred Louis d’or. The problem is that the talented Goldberg was only fourteen! Maybe he “grew into proficiency” with these challenging pieces?

The Goldberg Variations (S.988) are the fourth and final part of Bach’s Clavier-Übung cycle and consist of the aria with 30 variations for two manual harpsichord. It is the bass line and its implied harmonies, not the aria, that serve as the theme. There are three types of variations: the first type elaborates a particular character, the second type is playful or descriptive, and the third type is canonic. Every third variation is a canon. Links between numerous variations imply at least portions of the work were designed in a continuous sequence. The works ending with the aria’s return implies completing a cycle. With the narrow focus of a single harmonic form, Bach uses virtually every expressive device in his creative arsenal.

Wolfram delivered a deeply satisfying and masterful performance superbly balancing the separate elements within an overall conception. His control of rhythm was authoritative. Articulation of the fastest and most intricate passages, especially ornamentation, was breathtaking. It was endlessly fascinating to watch Wolfram’s virtuosic crossed-hand playing, all the more challenging with the piano’s lack of the harpsichord’s two manuals. Variations Nos. 9, 11, 14, 20, and 28 were especially good examples of Wolfram’s “legerdemain-like” skill. Emotional depths were plumbed. There was wistful yearning in the so-called “Black Pearl,” Variation No. 25 in G minor and the eloquent simplicity of the quodlibet of Variation No. 30. The latter is an interweaving of two folksongs, “Ich bin solang nicht bei dir g’uest” (I have so long been away) and “Kraut und Ruben haben mich vertrieben” (Cabbage and turnips have driven me away)!

Based upon this opening concert, the North Carolina Bach Festival has successfully been “rebooted!” Now all it needs is for rapid expansion of its audience of music lovers.

The festival continues March 4 in Raleigh, March 5 in Greensboro, and March 11 in Charlotte. See the sidebar for details.