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Friday, Sep 29, 2023

Festival Demonstrates Versatility of Bach

On Saturday, April 25, the fifth annual Bach Festival Concert presented a thrilling combination of students, community members and professionals in an enthusiastic display of musical colors to a packed audience in the Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts Concert Hall. Now celebrating its fifth anniversary, the Bach Festival has established a loyal following and level of musical ambition and professionalism which sets it apart from any other musical event at the College.

When looking for a guest conductor who possessed a combination of exceptional professional skills and a geographic reach beyond the New England region, the festival organizers, Music Together and voice teacher Jessica Allen and Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities Jeffrey Buettner enthusiastically selected Jeffrey Thomas, Artistic and Music Director of the American Bach Soloists, a baroque orchestra and early music chorus based in San Francisco.

A Professor of Music and Director of Choral Ensembles at the University of California, Davis, Thomas also hosts two internationally syndicated classical music radio shows and has performed with symphony orchestras in Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Houston, San Francisco, Austria, England, Germany, Italy, Japan and Mexico, among others.

Arriving on Monday, April 20, Thomas spent the majority of the week in classes and coaching individual students before rehearsals on Friday, which gathered all of the involved parties together for the first time.

“What’s really nice about this particular performance environment is that Jeff [Buettner] has mixed up Middlebury students and some faculty, community members and professionals sitting side by side, and that’s a great experience for all of those entities,” Thomas said.

Though the Festival Concert is the pinnacle event of the Festival, the opening Thursday evening Performing Arts Series performance by Axiom Brass, carillon recital, two interest sessions on Bach and a chamber music showcase on Sunday contributed to a weekend of Festival events offering members of the College and larger communities a range of contextual and musical choices centered on Bach.

“Bach appeals to a huge number of people,” Thomas said. “There is some bit of magic to a Bach festival – they exist all around the world and they tend to engender audiences that return year after year, because they see this as a pilgrimage to hear those performances.”

In previous years, the Festival Concert has taken place in Mead Chapel, and the move to the Concert Hall, which is at once spacious and intimate, allowed for a distribution of sound that enveloped the audience with the rich, colorful mixture of music from soloists and ensembles, instruments and voices.

The first half of the concert, consisting of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and Bach’s early “Cantata for Jubilate,” was performed as a chamber ensemble without conductor. With the palpable prowess of Affiliate Artist Cynthia Huard on harpsichord centering the piece, the concert began on a lively, incredibly professional note, augmented by the texturally ambitious Collegium and professional vocal soloists throughout.

In addition to bass Buettner, tenor Adam Hall and mezzo Lindsey Warren, soprano Lisa Wooldridge ’16, soprano/mezzo Annie Beliveau ’18 and baritone Tevan Goldberg ’18 sang in the Collegium during both halves of the concert, proving their ability to tackle incredibly challenging music with nuanced confidence. Soprano Erica Furgiuele ’15 joined this group during the “Cantata for Palm Sunday,” the last piece of the evening.

Special attention must be paid to soprano Lisa Wooldridge ’16, a singer whose effortless, pure and tonally rich soprano voice soared as a part of the Collegium during the majority of the concert, placing her easily on the level of the professional vocalists around her. Her high standard of performance is particularly impressive in light of her recent achievement as Diana, one of the leads in the Middlebury College Musical Player (MCMP)’s spring showing of Next to Normal.

Additionally, Emily Luan ’15 lent her talents as a violinist to the chamber-style performance of the Brandenburg Concerto, and Rita Pfieffer ’15 and Gloria Breck ’18 played violin in the Festival Orchestra, while Tevan Goldberg ’18 played the harpsichord.
After intermission, Thomas conducted the Festival Orchestra, College Choir and Collegium in the performance of two of Bach’s early cantatas, ‘Actus tragicus” and “Cantata for Palm Sunday.”

“The early cantatas used fairly different types of instruments, so there is a tonal variety along with the interesting range of colors for the audience to listen to,” Thomas said. “There’s a kind of drama in these works that I think the later cantatas don’t have because they are much more smoothly engineered. They are absolutely knockout pieces.”

In the two and a half hours of music, the rich, precise tone and collective power of the College Choir filled the space of the Concert Hall particularly well, adding jolts of energy after the intense focus of arias and recitatives. In fact, I so enjoyed the Choir that I would have liked to hear more, but the addition of the Collegium and the impressively ambitious range of pieces dictated that a wider variety of instruments and ensembles competed for performance time.

Year after year, the Bach Festival proves that in an era of autotune, synthesizers and bass beats, Bach is still alive and well – and if the trend continues, this will be true for decades to come.