Bach & Beyond Baroque Music Festival off on a strong note

In review

OBSERVER Photo by Justin Goetz Brian Walnichi plays the octave mandolin for “Chacone in G Major.” Bach and Beyond will not return in 2020, instead w

Friday night, June 15, I had the pleasure of attending the opening concert of this year’s Bach & Beyond Baroque Music Festival at the 1891 Fredonia Opera House.

The festival, now in its 23rd season, is under the artistic direction of Grant Cooper, and includes an impressive lineup of regional musicians specializing in the performance practice of the 17th and 18th centuries. While the music of Johann Sebastian Bach — elevated to a monolithic status by historians, musicologists, and theorists — forms the backbone of this festival’s sound, it’s interesting to note that the titular composer was curiously absent from the evening’s list of contributing creatives. Cooper opted, instead, for a program that featured music written by two of Bach’s contemporaries, followed by a post-intermission spectacle, generated from the mind of a child prodigy born six years after the Baroque master’s death.

The evening began with the somber notes of Franz Xaver Richter’s Sinfonia con fuga. Richter (1709-1789) is widely regarded to have been one of the best contrapuntalists of the Mannheim composers, and this music reflects many of his formidable polyphonic techniques. It’s almost a sonic time capsule of Western music, linking the Baroque and Rococo styles with the common-practice sound of the 1st Viennese School (i.e., Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven). Mr. Cooper conducted the International Baroque Soloists in a moving performance, intensified by the fact that nearly all of the musicians were standing. This seemed to allow for great freedom in communication and expression. The length, and profundity, of the initial movement leaves the overall composition of the work feeling slightly unbalanced, but the musicians gave enough energy to the final movement to bring the work to a satisfying close.

The second work on the program, Trio Sonata in G Minor, Op. 2, No. 6, was written by Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759). All those quintessential hallmarks of the venerable Baroque composer’s style pour out of this attractive composition. Lovers of Handel’s operas will find themselves at home with the many tuneful melodies contained here. Cheryl Bishkoff and Sarah Hamilton gave a spirited performance as soli oboists, with Bryan Eckenrode (cello) and Justin Blackwell (harpsichord) providing solid continuo playing.

An anonymous chaconne, performed on mandolin (Brian Walnicki) and cello (Bryan Eckenrode), was a welcomed palate cleanser before moving on to another trio sonata. This relatively diminutive work was just the right amount of playful to balance the weighty works that preceded it.

OBSERVER Photo by Justin Goetz Cheryl Bishkoff plays the oboe.

Handel’s second musical offering of the evening was the Trio Sonata in E-flat Major, HWV 382. Again, Bishkoff, Hamilton, Eckenrode, and Blackwell took the stage to bring this music to life. The strength of the performers’ musical interpretations came across particularly well in the final two movements, which served to counteract the youthful, at times juvenile, exuberance of the composer, who may have been quite young when he penned this composition.

After intermission Cooper lead a riveting performance of the Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). This half-hour work from Mozart’s 23-year-old mind can be a challenge for even the most seasoned veterans of the classical repertoire. With recognizable melodies and exposed technical passagework, there is nowhere for a soloist to hide, but Julie Leven (violin) and David Rose (viola) gave a wonderfully nuanced interpretation with the International Baroque Soloists.

This concert was an enjoyable musical experience, and I’m greatly looking forward to the remaining concerts in this series.

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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