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Bach Festival brings ‘Vive la France’ to Knowles

It was my unusual privilege on April 22 to attend the Bach Festival’s Vive la France concert in Rollins’ own Knowles Memorial Chapel. The Bach Festival Society, which saw its birth at Rollins in 1935, per the evening’s program, prides itself in “bringing world-class talent to the Winter Park community.” What better place to display said talent than in the ominously lit, imposing halls of Knowles Chapel? As I took my seat against the right wall, a gracious pillar obstructing my view of three quarters of the orchestra, I felt a sense of grandeur that left me feeling dwarfed and underdressed.

The concert opened with Camille Saint-Saenes’ Morceau de Concert, Op. 94, featuring Kathy Thomas leading on the French horn. From the first few strokes of conductor John V. Sinclair’s hands, I could hear a majesty that had no trouble filling the massive space of the chapel. The clear ringing of Thomas’ horn heralds a grand sweep from the string ensemble in resonant highs and thundering lows. It sounded patriotic to me in the moment, and were I less enraptured, I may have deigned to salute the orchestra.

Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes followed after some applause. Nuages, or Clouds, the first piece, had an insistent and rolling consistency to it that I sank into. The cellos and double basses gently hummed through my whole body. Fetes, appropriately Holidays, had the same sedating and carrying quality of its namesake, so much so that I was stolen by dreams halfway through.

At that point, I noticed the choir (which I am ashamed to admit I had thought was just another section of the audience up until this point) rise from their seats, and my voice caught as I felt theirs preparing. They boomed like a thunderclap as they sang the suitably titled Gloria, as per Francis Poulenc. This glorious hymn led into a softer, more personal Laudamus te, “We praise you.” The strings here sounded almost humble. It was here that the astounding soprano Sherezade Panthaki took the stage for Domine Deus, an almost ominous piece recognizing Lord God’s supreme sovereignty. Panthaki’s clear and skyscraper-high tone was likely be heard from Valencia College.

Domine Fili unigenite, followed by Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, followed by Qui sedes ad desteram patris concluded this section of the concerto, in which equal measures of awe and fear of God resonated in every note. Not every section stood out to me, but really, not all of them needed to.

The concert closed with a rendition of Gabriel Faure’s Requiem. The intermission allowed me to stretch my legs and process the grandeur of what I had just heard, and as I returned to my seat, I had a burning curiosity to hear the voice of Michael Dean, the baritone leading this section. I am not disappointed; the ideal counterpart to Panthaki’s soaring soprano, Dean’s voice runs low, and fluid like the depths of the ocean. I was completely captivated, in particular during Libera Me, a mournful but dignified piece with a fantastic melody.

The rest of this section spoke to me very little, and felt like a subdued ending when matched against the rst half of the performance.

I would say that I have a sober and objective appreciation for the skill and precision it took to execute a concert of such caliber. I would also say I personally lack the personal attraction to such performances, and lack the ability needed to critique them with any real fervor.

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