Durango celebrates Bach at annual festival

Courtesy of C. Scott Hagler

Violin students of Sharon Neufeld’s Suzuki Music Academy perform Johann Sebastion Bach’s “Minuet” during Sunday’s student recital to open the 6th annual Durango Bach Festival at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

When violinist Nolan Reed concluded the opening concert in the 6th annual Bach Festival, a distinct hush fell over the crowd. Everyone seemed to sense that Reed was making real music, not learning, not practicing and not struggling to get it right. Music that was beautiful and meaningful.

Sunday’s student recital has become a tradition with performers ranging in age from 6 to 20 and skills developed more than half a year to more than a decade of lessons, workshops and, in some cases, conservatory classes and competitions. Traditionally, the Sunday concert sets the festival in motion, and it is of necessity a mixed bag.

St. Mark’s Church is usually packed with parents and siblings, and so it was. Even the performers sat in the audience, spilling over the front pews onto altar benches and floor space. So it was no surprise to see a standing-room-only crowd at this popular event. And it’s no surprise but pure delight to see a tiny musician lifted onto a piano bench or wrestle a small cello up the altar stairs.

What does surprise is something more than the structural building blocks of Johann Sebastion Bach’s great music. When students study Bach, they have to master intricate polyphony, precision and rhythmic clarity.

It’s a small miracle to see piano students resisting the temptation to blur Baroque architecture by sneaking a foot to the pedal. It takes courage to play Bach cleanly. Precision and clarity seemed to be the twin goals of all 14 music teachers represented at Sunday’s concert.

Sharon Neufeld’s Suzuki Academy Viola Students opened the program with a crisp reading of a Bach Minuet. Before the beginning violists played a note, however, you knew they were on stage for a purpose.

No matter how young, the musicians presented themselves as professionals, and that demeanor generally held true throughout the recital. Dressed for the occasion, the musicians came on stage with a purpose. Everyone demonstrated remarkable concentration.

A few forgot to acknowledge the audience before playing, and several rushed off stage when their music ended. Only two forgot to bow, but on the whole, the musicians communicated that they were there to perform works by perhaps the world’s greatest composer.

Most of the students constructed the scaffolding of Bach’s music. That’s where one has to begin. But once learned, mastered and absorbed, there’s music to be made, and three musicians stood out.

Reed’s incredibly beautiful rendering of part of the Sonata No. 4 in C Minor stood out. It was an elegant, sad dance with a lilting rhythm and song-like passages that Reed leaned into before pressing into a transition. He shaped every phrase and lingered over some long notes while his accompanist, Beverly Lawrence, intuitively supported the entire superstructure with a fine pulsating rhythm.

Cellist Steve White played the Allemande from Suite #2 in D Minor, another splendid minor-key evocation of music beyond building blocks. And violist Nick Wilbur performed the Courante from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, with a real sense of delight.

It’s a pleasure to listen to and watch performers who have integrated the music so deeply that they appear to have gone beyond just notes and rudimentary phrasing to enter the realm of musical expression.

Now the rest of the week is unfolding with Bach’s Lunch concerts at noon every day, two big concerts Wednesday and Saturday evenings, and this year, a few lectures by a Bach scholar for added value.

Timothy Smith, professor of music theory at Northern Arizona University will speak at the church Tuesday at noon and Wednesday evening before C. Scott Hagler presents the Goldberg Variations.

Smith will be at Fort Lewis College Thursday afternoon as part of the Artist in Residence program, and back at the church that night for a standalone lecture regarding the B Minor Mass.

jreynolds@durangoherald.com. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.

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