My first visit to this Bach festival on the Danforth (opening night of its fourth year) coincided with the first sold-out performance ever. Clearly encouraging, management now also needs to develop a much better plan of seating the loyal and new-found patrons without having them stand in a long lineup spread over many blocks. Luckily, the weather was fine so not too big an annoyance—this time.
Once inside the mighty St. Barnabas-on-the-Danforth church, passholders went to the left and the rest of us went scouting for seats in the unreserved rows. I was reminded of the early days of the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival where it took its own success to move to upscale venues and reserved seats as a major way of ensuring many more return visits. Here, I ended up about a half-dozen rows from the pulpit/choir seating which doubled as the concert stage. The building’s overall design being a somewhat narrow rectangle meant the performers had to inventively establish their places depending on the instrumentation.
In opening cantata, Tritt auf due Glaubensbahn, BWV 152, the organ, ably manned by Christopher Bagan, literally backed up his colleagues with winds and strings forming a horseshoe in front. The vocal soloists (soprano Hélène Brunet who marvellously appeared from nowhere for her first entry and bass-baritone Joel Allison whose impeccable technique and satisfying lower range provided the most consistent singing of the night) were perched on the first stair.
Despite the physical bobbings and weavings of oboist extraordinaire (and director), John Abberger, the ensemble never approached the sort of unanimity that this “dialogue” work requires.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, BWV 1050 was much more focussed as Luc Beauséjour’s harpsichord skills passed nearly every test that the daunting part demands. His extended “cadenza” in the Allegro was a wonderful display of grit and virtuosity that only slipped into the realm of “frantic” a couple of times. The solo contributions from violinist Julia Wedman and Alison Melville (flauto traverso, later recorder) were literal peas in a pod in terms of phrasing and dynamics. More harmonic direction from the remaining continuo (Felix Deak and Alison Mackay) would have moved this performance from good to great.
By far the highlight of the concert was the Concerto in A Minor, BWV 1041. Wedman led her colleagues with verve and authority (and a very merry chase in the closing Allegro). Apart from her leadership, the unanimity of voices (only strings and harpsichord) meant that earlier problems of stage placement and disparate sound productions (electronic, wind, bow, voice) vanished.
After the violin concerto, I moved to the very back of the church to discover how the building’s acoustics might be changed. The Cantata, Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV 23, certainly fared differently than when up close.
From the first measures, the blend improved as the music took advantage of the full resonating powers of stone and brick. Most certainly the oboes dominated (Abberger being joined by Marco Cera), leaving the strings decidedly in the background. The chorus quartet (tenor, Nick Veltmeyer, countertenor Daniel Taylor along with Brunet and Allison—standing on two levels) were an aural joy to behold when “tutti”. In the opening Aria Duetto, “O True God and Son of David,” Taylor’s radiant declamations meshed well with Brunet, only to have his marvellous colour overshadowed by his instrumental colleagues in the Chorus and Chorale.
Veltmeyer led his Recitativo with conviction, excellent diction and a fully formed dramatic style, convincingly imploring his Maker “To serve the sick and healthy.” Appropriate words indeed as efficiencies begin to trump genuine need—no matter what your belief.
Without doubt, the Toronto Bach Festival is an artistic entity that ought to have many more seasons ahead—certainly the repertoire can assure few if any repeats will be necessary. However, it also owes Bach’s genius and the organization’s growing legion of supporters the opportunity to hear and savour the thousands of details that can magically combine into an incredibly moving, life-affirming whole. Thus the proverbial gauntlet is thrown. Here’s hoping it will be picked up. JWR