Boulder Bach Festival: Next Generations
A review by Betsy Schwarm
Spring 2022 brings the 41st season of the Boulder Bach Festival. In lesser hands, 41 years of a single composer – even the mighty JS Bach – might seem too much. His catalog is vast, but it’s all him: how many cantatas and fugues does one really need? However, years ago, the Boulder Bach Festival developed the admirable plan of putting Bach in a broader context. What else was happening in his time? What (and who) followed in his footsteps afterward? It’s a richer perspective, and deeper as well, making every Boulder Bach Festival event worthy of closer attention.
For this year’s Festival Week, the BBF offered four concerts in four days, along with supporting lectures and exhibits. One of those concerts was on Saturday, May 14, with a matinee at the First Congregational Church in downtown Boulder. Varying combinations of performers presented music of JS Bach himself, but also Mozart (a devotee of the master’s music), Clara Schumann (Bach’s works often featured in her piano recitals), and Lili Boulanger, whose works exemplify how music evolved in the century and a half between Bach’s passing and Boulanger’s brief career. Four generations, three nationalities, and two genders: that’s a broader context to be admired and appreciated.
One of Bach’s superlative solo violin sonatas, the g minor, BWV 1001, came first. BBF music director Zachary Carrettín stepped forward, first with insights into how the current state of the world affects one’s perception of music, a fact no less true in Bach’s time than in our own. Then he offered his nuanced interpretation of the music: plaintive and soulful when required, but, in the more briskly paced movements, restlessly driven with close attention to interwoven lines. It was a dramatic way to begin a concert; even with just one lone violinist, Bach’s music suggests a far more detailed vision.
Next came another solo work, this time Wolfgang Mozart’s solo piano Fantasia in d minor, K. 397. Mozart’s correspondence makes clear his admiration for the clarity of structure in Bach’s compositions; his Fantasia reveals him trying his own hand at those techniques. BBF’s executive and artistic director Mina Gajić presided over her own splendid Érard concert grand, bringing musical sighs to the tender prelude, then effusing the songlike passages of the main theme with sweetness. Programming the Mozart Fantasia immediately after the Bach Sonata – both works being utterly solo – neatly emphasized the structural debt that Mozart owed Bach.
Following the Fantasia was a set of three songs by Clara Schumann, herself a member of the Bach appreciation society. For these – Liebst du um Schönheit, Liebeszrauber, and Lorelei – Gajić was joined by Dutch soprano Josefien Stoppelenburg, whose clear tone, crystalline diction, and subtle coloring of the words conveyed the aura of the texts. That Clara was herself a pianist seemed clear in the piano part, never reduced to mere accompaniment. Gajić made the most of her own opportunities for further expressive shaping. As the only vocal music on the program, these songs stood out with even more direct communicative power.
Lili Boulanger, younger sister of the famed Nadia, was the most recent composer on the program, and perhaps the least inclined to intricacy. However, when a composer is not only female but also never of strong health, that composer might sense one’s expressive voice as a candle in the wind, to be enjoyed while it lasts without taking the time for further development. Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps (Of a Morning in Spring) was her last completed work, dating from 1918 just before her passing at age 24 from tuberculosis. Violinist Yu-Eun Kim and pianist Mina Gajić combined forces to deftly bring forth the sometimes singing, sometimes sparkling moods of Lili’s composition. In their hands, the duet version of Printemps suggested greater clarity and sunshine than one might find in the orchestral version.
As the final work, BBF offered Mozart’s Piano Quartet in g minor, K. 478. The largest scale work on the program, it offered sufficient drama to bring the afternoon to a close, and was also an ideal showcase for unity of vision. In any chamber work, one must have balance between players, with comparatively equal weight for each member of the ensemble, and agreement as to the spirit of the end result. Moreover, there is the matter of shifting the spotlight from one player to another when the occasion arises. Phrases first heard on one instrument often transfer to another, requiring the new keeper of that phrase to give it rather different colors than it had possessed moments before. Contrast of expression adds to the richness of the result.
For the piano quartet, BBF brought together Yu-Eun Kim, violin; Paul Miller, viola; Coleman Itzkoff, cello; and Mina Gajić, piano, a team that proved not only equal to Mozart’s challenges, but also ideal in the blend of voices that one finds in the best chamber music. Not only did the performance of the quartet succeed as a dramatic concert finale, it also served to sum up the afternoon as it had begun: with an immersion in both the intricacy of Bach’s voice and the flow of Mozart’s. Entirely Mozart’s creation, the quartet was nonetheless infused at times with his awareness of what Bach might have done with this phrase or that one. No man is an island, and Mozart, for all his innate genius, had no objection to trying a trick or two of Bach’s from time to time. If one had overlooked this fact in the opening juxtaposition of the Bach sonata and the Mozart Fantasia, the larger number of players here made it all the more distinct.
Bravo to the Boulder Bach Festival for giving its audiences an opportunity to compare the approaches of these two master composers. That Clara Schumann and Lili Boulanger were also featured made the experience that much more rewarding. Music is a product of time and place, but those factors vary from one composer to another. If one had ever doubted that fact, the vibrancy of the BBF’s May 14 concert was a perfect reminder. Bach was not merely a man of his time; he also set a standard that later composers sought to meet – from their own particular point of view.