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After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, this summer marked the exciting return of the Bach & Beyond baroque music festival to Fredonia Opera House. Now in its 25th year, under the artistic direction of Maestro Grant Cooper, the festival began with a Friday evening concert that featured music created by one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s many descendants, a premiere of music written by a living composer and an associated tangential musical curiosity.
The International Baroque Soloists took the stage to kick off the evening’s program with the world premiere of “Monteverdiane” by Byron Adams (b. 1955). This four-movement work demonstrated the composer’s affinity and musicological understanding for compositions written during the Renaissance-Baroque divide, in particular the music of the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). Featuring mostly reworkings of Monteverdi’s original musical material, the composition began with a reminiscence of the Italian composer’s opera “The Orfeo” and culminated with a pleasant manipulation of the final love duet of “The Incoronazione of Poppea.” Adams’ understanding of Baroque counterpoint is quite evident from his use of creative imitation, as material was passed between the various members of the ensemble. Overall, however, the music seemed to lack anything compelling in terms of individual artistic statement. That said, aside from the sometimes awkward juxtaposition of texture and a few stunted phrases, the music proved to be an entertaining opener for this year’s events.
The next musical offering of the evening was a beautiful chamber piece by Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), the youngest of JS Bach’s eleven sons. The “Oboe Quartet in B flat major”, published in 1776, featured the “London Bach’s” mastery of the rococo musical style, brought to life by the able talents of Cheryl Bishkoff (oboe), Liviu Dobrota (violin), Brain Walnicki (viola) and Elizabeth Simkin (cello). Although this original work was well performed and pleasant enough to hear, its two-movement structure and rather abrupt ending seemed to leave the audience slightly perplexed.
After a brief intermission, the International Baroque Soloists returned to the stage to perform more music by JC Bach (reconstructed by Henri Casadesus), namely the “Cello Concerto in C minor”, with soloist Jolyon Pegis. This turned out to be the highlight of the evening, thanks to Pegis’ keen sense of phrasing and beautiful “singing” Your. The cello is often considered the stringed instrument that comes closest to the imitation qualities of the human voice, particularly in range and expressive timbre. It was certainly easy to hear how some might take that to be true in light of such a compelling musical presentation.
The evening ended with a performance by Vaughan Williams “Oboe Concerto”, with Cheryl Bishkoff as featured soloist. Maestro Cooper joked from the stage that Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), “I loved Bach, but hated the baroque.” So this begs the question of why this specific composer might be included within the boundaries of a baroque music festival. The answer, it seems, was found in connection with the program’s opening, as Byron Adams spent decades as a renowned Vaughan Williams researcher. Once this tenuous link had been established, the musicians enthusiastically interpreted a pleasantly surprising work. As I have never really been a fan of the musical work of Vaughan Williams, Bishkoff, Cooper and the International Baroque Soloists have achieved something quite unexpected: my pleasure in the music created by this prolific English composer with folk influences.
Andrew Martin Smith is a composer, clarinetist, executive director of the Society of Composers, Inc., and associate professor of music at the State University of New York at Fredonia, where he teaches courses in music theory and composition, in addition to his roles as a music theory and composition instructor at Interlochen Arts Camp (Interlochen, MI).