J.S.B. IN MTL
Montreal’s Bach fest highlights talent like counter-tenor Jacob Josef Orlinski,
MONTREAL— When Hugh MacLennan wrote his iconic novel Two Solitudes back in 1945, he had in mind what were thought of as Canada’s two founding cultures.
Were he able to write that novel today he might also be referring to Canada’s two major cities, neither of which is as culturally aware of the other as it should be.
As a small example, the Montreal Bach Festival was scheduled to come to a close last night with a remarkable event unparalleled in Toronto, a presentation of all six of Bach’s Suites for solo cello, performed without intermission by perhaps the greatest cellist of our day, Yo-Yo Ma.
The Montreal what, you ask? Toronto, of course, does not have a Bach festival, although it once did, and Montreal’s is virtually unique in Canada now and virtually unknown in our largest city.
Torontonians don’t know about Alexandra Scheibler, either, a German musicologist who settled with her husband in the Quebec metropolis several years ago and took his advice to found a Bach festival to keep herself busy. That festival has been responsible for bringing some of the greatest interpreters of the music of Bach and his contemporaries to Montreal and offering as well a showcase for the city’s own considerable community of Baroque music specialists.
This year’s festival opened with a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion featuring the noted German tenor Julian Pregardien as the Evangelist, included Montreal Symphony Orchestra performances of the B minor Mass under Kent Nagano and embraced a variety of instrumental works, not least among them the Goldberg Variations played by pianist Jeremy Denk.
Nagano, by the way, has become so enthusiastic about the project that he has agreed not only to conduct but to serve on its board of directors.
To launch the festival back in 2005, Scheibler knew she needed a credibility-building world-class headliner and not surprisingly turned to an ensemble she knew well, Musica antiqua Koln, from her native Cologne. That festival lasted only a week and its two successors were biennial. Now the festival lasts two and a half weeks and takes place annually.
“This is not like a regular job for me,” the festival’s founder and artistic director says with a smile. “You have to give 150 per cent. And I don’t want the festival to put Bach in a box. We have even brought over a breakdance group from Berlin.”
This year’s program, with a children’s concert, complementary talks and lunchtime concerts featuring young Quebec musicians, illustrates the festival’s growing breadth. During a short visit, I managed to experience something of this breadth, ranging from a concert featuring the extraordinary Polish counter-tenor Jacob Josef Orlinski to another featuring Bach harpsichord concertos transcribed for harp, to a third in which Masaaki Suzuki presided from the harpsichord over the internationally celebrated Bach Collegium Japan.
Orlinski, a Metropolitan Opera Auditions winner currently studying at New York’s Juilliard School, is a real discovery, able to toss off vocal fireworks in the Cecilia Bartoli manner and bring an audience to its feet. His performance with L’Harmonie des Saisons also offered a reminder of the musical resources to be found outside Montreal. This ensemble, directed by Eric Milnes, is based in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.
Ensemble Caprice, which is based in Montreal, proved to be another period-instrument presenter virtually unknown in Toronto. Directed by Matthias Maute, a virtuoso recorder and Baroque flute player who teaches at McGill University and the Université de Montréal, this group accompanied Valérie Milot, harpist of L’Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal, in the transcribed harpsichord music.
But the instrumentalist who really captured my ear was oboist Masamitsu Sannomiya with the Bach Collegium Japan. I don’t think I have ever heard a more impressive Baroque oboist. Such discoveries are, to be sure, what a festival should be about, bringing to our ears sounds that are unfamiliar and stimulating.
True, Bach himself is certainly familiar. But in this festival his music is addressed from a variety of viewpoints and paired with works by such far less familiar figures as Domenec Terradellas and Gaetano Maria Schiassi in the case of L’Harmonie des Saisons’ program, Airat Ichmouratov in the case of Ensemble Capricco’s, and Francesco Bartolomeo Conti’s in the case of Bach Collegium Japan’s.
What united these programs was an obvious festival commitment to excellence. We could use such a Bach festival in Toronto. But then what would happen to our solitude?
Polish counter-tenor Jacob Josef Orlinski peforms at the Montreal Bach Festival.