Festivals come and go, but the Los Angeles Bach Festival at First Congregational Church has been a model of consistency and commitment since 1934. On Friday the 1998 edition got underway with a compact and rewarding recital by University of Michigan organist James Kibbie, a veteran of this annual event.
Most of the best resources of the constantly evolving organs at First Congregational for Bach and the North German school are at the rear of the sanctuary, and Kibbie started his program at the console there. His accounts of a Toccata in D minor by Buxtehude and two of Bach's "Leipzig" Chorales, though occasionally hesitant rhythmically, made telling use of those resources. The reverse was true of the great Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582, where crisp, articulate playing suffered under dull registration until the very end.
After intermission Kibbie moved to the console at the front of the church, though he still relied heavily on the rear pipes in his cleanly sculpted and expressive interpretations of the Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 549, and the inexhaustible Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, here rich in antiphonal interplay. In between he offered a bit of Baroque whimsy, Johann Kuhnau's "The Battle between David and Goliath," narrated effectively by Alan Freeman.
The proceedings began with something of a bombshell lobbed into the clannish and cliquish local organ community: the announcement that Frederick Swann, currently organist at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, would become the new organist at First Congregational in September, succeeding the church's recently retired organist of 38 years, Lloyd Holzgraf.
* Los Angeles Bach Festival, First Congregational Church, 540 S. Commonwealth Ave., (213) 385-1345, Ext. 203. Free noon concerts: soprano Elin Carlson and pianist Alan Steinberg, today; organist Lloyd Holzgraf, Tuesday and Thursday; Southern California Jr. Bach Festival medal winners, Wednesday; flutists Lisa Edelstein and Diane Alancraig, Friday. Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" (Parts I-III) and Magnificat, conducted by Thomas Somerville; Sunday 3 p.m. $17.