The genius of Paul Goodwin has been revealed at the 2011 Carmel Bach Festival. With more discoveries yet to come, patrons appear already to have fallen in love with the new maestro's vision, high energy and stunning musicality.
Opening weekend, with its gleaming showcase of short works Saturday evening followed by Sunday's breathtaking "St. John Passion," leaves no doubt that the 74-year-old organization chose its new leader brilliantly.
Once in every generation or so, the festival introduces a new music director and conductor to Bach lovers. Twenty years ago, German conductor Bruno Weil took the reins from his predecessor Sandor Salgo and, together with his baroque superstar concertmaster Libby Wallfisch, created a world-class ensemble expert in period music performance.
In a gracious handoff, these two musical titans bid farewell to their beloved Carmel festival last season, placing the music in Goodwin's care. He will lift the music-making to new levels of excellence in partnership with his own exemplary concertmaster Peter Hanson.
Conductor styles vary. Some lead with small, self-contained gestures. Others adopt a bold and dramatic manner. There are those who seem to conjure the music into being like great magicians and others who coax gently like tender lovers. With Weil, it seemed as if he would disappear at times, vanishing into the music somehow. Then you would see him again suddenly.
Goodwin comes across as an extraordinary force of nature at the podium, only he doesn't use a podium. He favors the simple music stand, which keeps him close in to the players. Nor does he take a moment to gather himself, as some of his colleagues do, before the downbeat. He just arrives in a jubilant rush of energy and the music begins. A lithe and supple individual, Goodwin conducts with his whole body and being, generating an effervescent field of force that brings the music immediately alive.
In the first few concert moments with this electrifying maestro, about all you can think or say is, "Holy cow!" Then the beauty and perfection of the music takes over.
Goodwin is a tower of exuberance, yes, but also an exacting artist with a precise vision of how the music must sound. He calls himself a "phrasing junkie" and, indeed, each musical element seems refined to its essence and delivered perfectly to serve the whole. Nothing is lost. These brilliant textures and colors give the music a unique freshness that appears to be Goodwin's signature style.
Saturday's opening night concert served as a calling card for the conductor, displaying his approaches to core music of the Bach Festival. A visionary man, unafraid of bold programming moves, Goodwin began the concert with his own orchestral arrangement of Bach Sinfonias, into the middle of which he inserted the festival's first "Carmel Commission" — "Fancy on a Bach Air" by contemporary composer John Corigliano.
The "Suite of Sinfonias" took listeners on a delightful journey of Bach's moods and orchestral textures, showcasing the members of the orchestra. Goodwin — who enjoyed a career as an acclaimed baroque oboist before turning to conducting — features festival oboist Roger Cole prominently in the suite. Cole's beautiful and soulful playing is always memorable and he an important part of what makes this orchestra such a stellar group of international players.
The short Corigliano fancy appeared early on in the suite, a lovely string meditation that bowed to Bach from our own century, expanding the impact of the Baroque movements.
Handel's coronation anthems "Zadok the Priest" and "The King Shall Rejoice" brought in the magnificent choral forces of the festival leaving no question that the collaboration between associate conductor and choral director Andrew Megill and Goodwin will be monumental. These two works, composed for the coronation of England's King George II, were thrilling.
The evening culminated in Der Herbst (Autumn) from Haydn's Oratorio "The Season," delivering a lively and fun finish to the program, and giving the audience a chance to hear for the first time the gorgeous singing of tenor Rufus M ller and the baritone splendors of Alexander Dobson. The flirtatious duet between M ller and the festival's beloved soprano Kendra Colton proved a moment of magic. These two voices seem blissfully made for each other.
Terrific performances by the choral forces and the orchestra, including boisterous period hunting horns, brought Goodwin's opening night to a spectacular finish.
Not all was perfect, though. The brilliance and impeccability of the music-making requires that supporting elements of the festival attain a similar professional standard. Saturday the traditionally tight work of the Bach Festival tech crew was not in evidence. After the suite, their set change for the choral anthems was slow and ragged. These changes between works must be well-rehearsed, fast and executed with precision in order to maintain the high momentum of the performance. Some members of the crew were ambling and looking confused. Also, the lighting was sloppy, including, unaccountably, the houselights left part way up during the second half of the program.
The music is sensational, however. There is no doubt that the Bach Festival has an exciting and ideal new leader.