Festive occasions for Bach, Mozart

Times Staff Writer

These are troubled times for California and for classical music. The state teeters on the edge of bankruptcy; orchestras teeter and fall into bankruptcy. Little taught in financially strapped schools, Bach and Mozart are foreign subjects to young people. The Legislature talks of further reducing its support of the arts, implying that we better get used to suffering.

Is it really as bleak as all that? Friday night, San Luis Obispo opened its 33rd Mozart Festival to a full house in the acoustically splendid Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center. Saturday night, 125 miles up the coast, Carmel opened its 66th Bach Festival in the newly renovated Sunset Center. This popular seaside resort of about 4,000 permanent residents raised $21 million (that's $5,250 per person) to rebuild its concert hall, in part because of dissatisfaction with the original acoustics of its 71-year-old, 700-seat concert hall.

Any music lover looking for a perfect West Coast festival weekend has the bonus of a three-hour drive up Highway 1, connecting the two venues. No budget crisis can diminish this spectacular advertisement for our state.

Both the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival and the Carmel Bach Festival are lively, eclectic events that go well beyond the bounds of their principal concert halls and their featured composers' music. In the Mozart Festival (which runs through Aug. 3), two dozen concerts take place all over the San Luis Obispo region, including the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, Paso Robles winery and Chapman House-by-the-Sea on Shell Beach. There also are free concerts in public spaces and a fringe festival.

The opening concert, conducted by the festival founder and music director, Clifton Swanson, was a genial program of Mendelssohn's 40th Symphony, Mendelssohn's "Hebrides" Overture and Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. The soloist was the Japanese pianist Mari Kodama. The orchestra consists of mostly professional players from Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Some are members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, whose music director, Jeffrey Kahane, is the festival's associate conductor.

The performances Friday proved spirited and musical, and the acoustics in the 1,300-seat auditorium, built in 1996, made the program a joy to hear. There is a buoyancy to the sound of the strings and winds in this hall. Swanson delicately articulated inner lines in the Mozart symphony, and it came across as fresh and new. A tubby deep bass is the only problem, but Kodama overcame that in her commanding, electrifying performance of the Prokofiev concerto through sharp, percussive attacks.

The next night in Carmel, things were more complicated. The Bach Festival is coming off a couple of years' worth of hard times, when funding all but dried up in the dot-com bust. Still, the town pulled through with its 11-year effort to finish the Sunset Center in time for the Saturday night opening. The sold-out concert was full of Carmel charm, with formally attired audience members happily hobnobbing with frumpy local Bohemians.

The festival (which runs through Aug. 10) uses major and lesser musicians. It too includes a mix of repertory -- though most of it is Baroque -- and takes advantage of several local venues. Like San Luis Obispo, it also includes chamber comic opera this summer. Its music director is the well-known German period-instrument specialist, Bruno Weill.

Carmel Bach draws early-music specialists from the Bay Area as well as instrumentalists and singers from around the country and Europe. The concertmaster for the festival orchestra is the outstanding British baroque violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch. The great American baritone Sanford Sylvan is a regular. Willem Wijnbergen, the former managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra, has been running Carmel Bach for the last two years.

It is rare to see the Sunset Center, which originally had been a school auditorium, mentioned in the local press without the preceding adjective "beloved." Clearly a place of memories, it hosted Horowitz, Menuhin, Stravinsky, Ellington, Marian Anderson and many other greats.

When the city drew up plans in 1992 to replace the old, rundown auditorium with a new facility, preservationists got the Sunset deemed a state historic resource. Memories mattered more than music, so rather than build a fine-sounding new 700-seat theater, electronic sound was deemed a reasonable solution. In addition to being the home of the Carmel Bach Festival, the Sunset serves as the principal venue for the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Monterey Symphony and Carmel Music Society. A celebratory opening week for the hall will be held in late October with appearances by the Prague Chamber Orchestra, the Vienna Boys Choir and Wynton Marsalis.

And by then maybe it will sound better than it did last weekend. The long, narrow room with its arched ceiling could be a cross between a church and a Quonset hut, and that's how it sounds as well. Although the overall blend is good, with little telltale electronic distortion, there is a disconcerting lack of presence to the sound. The 80 small loudspeakers distributed throughout the hall add reverberation, but the music seems stubbornly confined to the stage, as if it were the sonic equivalent of the light at the end of a tunnel.

A long, upbeat opening program, led by Weill, began with a celebratory Bach cantata (No. 30a), included the Fourth "Brandenburg" Concerto and Stravinsky's Concerto, and ended with a rousing performance of Bach's Magnificat.

Sound enhancement or no, strong performers still dominated. Sylvan overcame his acoustical confines magnificently; other singers did not. Wallfisch played brilliantly in the "Brandenburg," but her tone is suited for an intimate space. The harpsichord was inaudible.

Sunday afternoon, Weill led Bach's "St. John Passion," which will be repeated the next two Sundays. The acoustics were better. More detail could be heard, but there still was a lack of sonic presence, and the echo effects felt phony, as if a long tube should mimic a cathedral. Saturday night I could not understand a single word from the chorus; Sunday afternoon I caught many.

Again Sylvan proved a wonder. In his beautiful arioso in the second part, expressing a heart torn between grief and consolation, he was the voice of compassion. Yet Scott Whitaker, the tenor who followed with an aria, was inadequate. Sally-Anne Russell was the terrific mezzo-soprano; Kendra Colton, a less satisfying soprano. Alan Bennett's Evangelist and Paul Gindlay's Jesus were well sung but not dramatically compelling.

Still, there was much beautiful playing from the orchestra, especially in the solo passages, of which there are many in this "Passion." Weill shaped Bach nicely and did not dawdle, but the performance lacked a sense of powerful theater.

The acoustics may have been part of the problem. At intermission Saturday night, Steve Barbar, who installed the electronics, indicated that he thought his job done. It's not. And he might start by taking a scenic drive to San Luis Obispo and noting how good a hall nearly twice the size of Sunset can sound.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday July 26, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction Mozart festival -- A review in Wednesday's Calendar section of the opening concert at San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival made a reference to the program including Mendelssohn's 40th Symphony. It should have said Mozart's 40th Symphony.
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