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The Sounds of Bach and Beyond in Fredonia

Vocalists Miriah Reyes, Maria Parker, Nathaniel McEwen and Kyle Botsford perform during Dido and Aeneas.

Currently in its 24th season, the Bach & Beyond Baroque Music Festival is under the artistic direction of Grant Cooper and includes an impressive lineup of nationally and internationally recognized musicians specializing in the performance practice of the 17th and 18th centuries.

While the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) has been elevated to a privileged status by musicologists-such that there is scarcely a citizen of the Western world that is unaware of at least the Baroque master’s name-it is delightful to see that the majority of this year’s repertoire presented at the 1891 Fredonia Opera House was not crafted by the titular composer. In fact, J.S. Bach was completely absent from the evening’s cohort of contributing creatives. Cooper opted, instead, for a program that featured music by three composers whose compositions bridge the 17th and 21st centuries via mythological connection.

The evening began with oboist Cheryl Bishkoff performing Six Metamorphoses after Ovid by 20th-century, English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). This fifteen-minute solo composition, from 1951, was presented in six movements, each named for a character from Roman mythology: Pan, Phaeton, Niobe, Bacchus, Narcissus, and Arethusa. In particular, Bishkoff’s lyrical tone and excellent dynamic control were showcased to great effect in movements one, three, and four.

The exploration of myths continued with a Prologue to Dido and Aeneas, reconstructed by Grant Cooper (b. 1953). In a reprise performance of this work from last season, Cooper assembled the composition from woven musical elements of Henry Purcell (1659-1695), John Blow (1649-1708), and added a dash of his own creativity into the mix. The music was presented in four sections; between each musical interlude there was a dramatic reading of the prologue’s libretto, with characters scattered about the theatre. I was glad to have heard the reconstruction again, particularly in light of what followed it.

Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas (after Virgil), was presented as a concert version of its full three-act form, with minimal costuming; this was a remarkable first for the festival. Soprano Janet Brown performed the role of Dido, offering musically sensitive ornamentation to Purcell’s lovely, lyrical melodic lines. Steven Stull lent his broad, articulate voice to the character Aeneas, and Lydia Evans fulfilled the role of Belinda. This intimate version of one of the earliest English operas was quite memorable, and not simply because of Dido’s infamous lament. Mezzo-soprano Dawn Pierce, possessing a voice of rich power and depth, delighted the audience with her interpretation of the Sorceress, in addition to covering additional supporting roles. I must say that I was most impressed with vocalists Miriah Reyes, Maria Parker, Nathaniel McEwen, and Kyle Botsford, who performed dual roles of ancillary characters and chamber choir with great aplomb, while the instrumentalists of the International Baroque Soloists carried the emotional energy of the work with a confident transparency.

The festival continues with different repertoire this evening and Sunday afternoon, and I am greatly looking forward to some of the idiosyncratic programming choices ahead.

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

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