BACH FESTIVAL WEEK OPENS WITH INSPIRED CONCERTO PROGRAM￼
A review by Kelly Dean Hansen, Ph.D
For much of its history, including the first years under music director Zachary Carrettin, the Boulder Bach Festival was a compressed event, with three or four concerts packed into a single week. Carrettin, now in his ninth year with the BBF, expanded the festival’s calendar to make it a full season event, with programs spread across the typical fall-spring concert season.
With the fitful return of live music emerging from the dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Carrettin once again placed the bulk of the festival’s 2021-22 offering within a compressed “festival week,” with four concerts to be played at Downtown Boulder’s First Congregational Church on four consecutive days over an expanded mid-May weekend.
With many COVID restrictions lifted, the opening “festival week” concert on Thursday, May 12 felt like a return to 2019, at least to some extent. The church was consciously not sold out to capacity, but the audience was reasonably large, and the choice of patrons to wear a mask or not seemed to be universally respected. But more than anything, it was the refreshingly “normal” program of five baroque concertos written between 1700 and 1730, two by Johann Sebastian Bach, that contributed to a sense of familiarity and comfort.
One of Carrettin’s most impactful contributions as music director has been the establishment of the COmpass REsonance Ensemble (stylized as CORE) as a binding force for the festival. While several individual artists were featured on Thursday’s program, and will be for the remaining three concerts, CORE was the focus of this first event, titled “Contemporaneous Concertos.”
Visually and aurally, the placement of the CORE musicians helped to highlight the differences between the concertos featuring a single soloist and the “concerto grosso” type with a small ensemble of two or three soloists. Especially interesting was the deployment of the non-solo players, the so-called “ripieno” group in baroque terminology. A baroque concerto performance is successful if the “ripieno” does not draw too much attention to itself. Remaining in the background is not as straightforward as it seems. The ensemble provided the necessary tapestry, coming through forcefully when the music demanded, but always with a keen sense of how to play at that “background” level when the soloist or soloists need to soar above the texture.
The concert’s opening work was Bach’s familiar D-minor harpsichord concerto, a piece often successfully appropriated by pianists and larger chamber orchestras. With the harpsichord’s limited sonic power in the large space of the FCC sanctuary, the decision to have the accompanying string instruments distributed at one player per part was brilliant. This allowed soloist Mina Gajić (Carrettin’s longtime partner and the festival’s Artistic and Executive Director) to project the busy and demanding solo part. Gajić was a stunning presence throughout the long concerto, playing with obvious passion and technical precision.
The two concerti grossi by that followed, by Georg Friedrich Handel (F major, Op. 6, No. 2) and Arcangelo Corelli (D major, Op. 6, No. 1), highlighted the contrast in ensemble size. The solo group of two violins and cello was now offset by the full CORE group with a larger contingent of “ripieno” players. This is where the discipline of that supporting group became most apparent. The solo group, Carrettin and Yu-Eun Kim on violins and Coleman Itzkoff on cello, were never overpowered by the other musicians. While the concertos are similarly structured, and the influence of the older Corelli on Handel is apparent, Corelli’s more fluid distribution of tempo markings and less discrete breaks between movements was a contrast to Handel’s more “standard” late baroque plan.
Both Kim and Itzkoff are winners of the Boulder International Chamber Music Competition (founded by Gajić) in 2018 and 2016 respectively. Together with Carrettin, they provided a tight-knit solo unit whose cohesion and unity was impeccable.
After intermission, renowned flutist Ysmael Reyes, familiar to Boulder audiences since his days as a graduate student at the University of Colorado, took the solo part in a recently rediscovered Concerto in G major by the baroque period’s most prolific composer, George Philipp Telemann, in what was almost certainly the Colorado premiere of the work. Its first movement was likely the source of a familiar melody from Bach’s F-minor harpsichord concerto. Again, the “ripieno” was a single player per part. Reyes was astounding in every way, playing the solo part from memory with a rich and full tone. The concerto itself is short, distinctive, and satisfying, belying the “homogenous” reputation of Telemann’s vast output.
The concert concluded with Bach’s beloved Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, a piece that straddles the line between solo concerto and “concerto grosso.” Carrettin and Kim were again wonderful in the solo parts, and the full CORE ensemble was again on stage. A particularly felicitous touch was reducing the ensemble for the intimate and deeply profound slow middle movement.