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Music review: Los Angeles Bach Festival concert at First Congregational Church

October 23, 2010 |  3:39 pm

Everyone in the classical music business is trying to attract new and younger audiences to the great Western tradition, and First Congregational Church of Los Angeles is no exception. But who knew that the oldest Protestant church in the city could also be one of the coolest venues around for spreading the musical gospel? On Friday, five  food trucks were serving eager lines of customers at the curb, while KCRW’s Tom Schnabel spun everything from jazzy saxophone riffs to Bollywood favorites in the church’s spacious forecourt.

It was all part of a pre-concert party for the concluding weekend of the 77th Annual Los Angeles Bach Festival, which ends Sunday at the church with a performance of the composer’s "St. John Passion." According to R. Scott Colglazier, senior minister, it’s “the oldest Bach festival west of the Mississippi.”

Friday’s concert promised “lasers, spotlights and multiple stages” for an eclectic program of Bach’s greatest hits inside the huge sanctuary. Creatively and effectively organized by artistic director Jonathan Talberg, the event presented a generous sampling of Bach’s solo works, performed on cello, guitar, organ and violin. Along the way, there was also a Bach-inspired premiere by film composer Charles Fernandez, as well as familiar transcriptions of Bach pieces by Percy Grainger and Gustav Holst performed by the excellent Cal State  Northridge Wind Ensemble led by Lawrence Stoffel.

Organbach But before the concert, people could be heard talking about the church’s organ. Indeed, in the benign war to keep classical music thriving,  First Congregational houses a secret weapon -- the largest church pipe organ in the world. Virgil Fox performed on it; so did Maurice and Marie-Madeleine Duruflé. And when it came time to unleash the monster, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the church’s organist-in-residence, S. Wayne Foster, did not disappoint. As the piece began, the chandelier lights flickered on and off a la “Phantom of the Opera,” delighting a capacity audience that remained enthralled until the score’s rousing climax shook the rafters.

The work offered one of the most effective laser shows of the night, perhaps because, as Foster said earlier in the week, “the lights add a lot to the fugue’s many echo-type effects.” Also wonderful was violinist Simeon Simeonov’s rendering of Bach’s Chaconne from Partita No. 2, performed standing from a dark balcony’s front row. You could barely see him, while disembodied hands moved in a sliver of purple-blue light.

Movements from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 were threaded through the program, one at a time, and as each was brilliantly performed by Los Angeles Philharmonic cellist David Garrett, they quietly but compellingly offered contrast -- the Sarabande, for example, came after the Toccata -- and held the enterprising no-intermission concert together.

One might assume the church’s acoustics would be overly reverberant, but they proved resonant but clear. Every meditative moment in Adam Pettit’s solo guitar transcriptions, including the Prelude from Violin Partita No. 3, remained brilliantly colored, articulated and focused.

The night’s premiere, Fernandez’s light, enjoyable “Bachus Illatus" for Organ and Wind Ensemble, showed Bach’s infinite adaptability to our time’s dominant movie culture.

Fernandez spent six years as solo and principal bassoonist with the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra. He was one among the many performers with deep musical backgrounds paying homage to Bach, including former and current players of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

After the concert, it was clear Bach’s music, which no doubt put people in a good mood back in the 18th century, had not lost its special magic in 2010. One smiling guy in his twenties exiting among the diverse crowd was overheard telling a pal how much he enjoyed the music. But, he added, “Your butt sure gets sore sitting in a pew.” Sit he did, however, from 9 p.m. until the concert ended at 10:45. Considering that the church’s elaborate presentation was an experiment, that's probably a good sign that it succeeded.

-- Rick Schultz

Photos: Outside and inside  First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. Courtesy: Kim-Minh Huberwald