After igniting bursts of surprise and delight in diverse venues for two weeks throughout Spokane, Zuill Bailey, artistic director of the Northwest Bach Festival, chose to celebrate the festival’s conclusion with a gala concert on Sunday afternoon at St. John’s Cathedral.
The concert showcased three of the solo artists who provided star power this year: Bailey himself, one of the world’s greatest cellists, violinist Soovin Kim and pianist Awadagin Pratt. Kim was fresh from three performances of works by J.S. Bach for solo violin over three days, and at three different venues: Barrister Winery, Nectar Tasting Room and Churchill’s Steak House. Pratt also performed to a full house at Barrister Winery on Saturday night in an exhilarating recital of music for solo piano by Bach (arranged by Ferruccio Busoni), Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt.
The three collaborated with conductor Piotr Gajewski, making his Spokane debut, in a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Concerto in C major for Violin, Cello and Piano, Op. 56, known as the Triple Concerto. Gajewski’s appearance was notable not only for the outstanding musicianship he demonstrated, but also because Bailey is hoping to see him become a vital part in future festivals.
We had the pleasure of hearing Gajewski conduct an elite orchestra, drawn from the ranks of the Spokane Symphony and featuring many of its principal players, in two great works: Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, a masterpiece of the Baroque era, and Wolfgang Mozart’s brilliant Symphony No. 35 in D major, K. 385 – the Haffner Symphony – which epitomizes all that we admire in the classical era.
Both the Bach suite and the Mozart symphony flowed, as Mozart liked to put it, “like oil” – clear, smooth and natural. This is not to ignore the many difficulties these works present, such as the high-flying gymnastics Bach requires of the trumpets, brought off with thrilling beauty and agility by Spokane Symphony principal Larry Jess and associate principal Chris Cook.
The Triple Concerto was perfectly suited to both closing the program and celebrating the spirit of the Northwest Bach Festival. In all of Beethoven’s other six concertos, five for piano and one for violin, a solo instrument is pitted against the orchestra in a contest of wit, invention and virtuosity. In the Triple, however, this sort of purposeful conflict is replaced by amiable collaboration among the three soloists, to whom Beethoven is careful to allot equal importance, while the orchestra assumes a supportive role.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that in Beethoven’s day the cello was seldom used as a solo instrument, the composer gives that instrument special prominence in the Triple, allowing it the initial statement of important themes and assigning it the concerto’s most beautiful passages. Thus, Bailey’s status in the festival as first among equals was echoed in this performance, in which the eloquence of his playing, as well as his careful attention to his colleagues, were in evidence.