Bach birthday bash ends era at Northampton Center for the Arts
Peter Blanchette, right, of Northampton, rehearses with Elliot Gibbons of San Francisco. The two will perform together Friday on the archguitar, which Blanchette invented.
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Archguitarist Peter Blanchette of Northampton rehearses in the Northampton Center for the Arts ballroom recently for the sixth annual Bach Birthday Concert that will take place there Friday. The concert will be the Center's last at its current location. KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »
Archguitarist Peter Blanchette of Northampton rehearses in the Northampton Center for the Arts ballroom recently for the sixth annual Bach Birthday Concert that will take place there Friday. The concert will be the Center's last at its current location.
Purchase photo reprints »
Peter Blanchette, left, of Northampton, rehearses with Elliot Gibbons, of San Francisco. The two will perform together Friday on the archguitar, which Blanchette invented.
Purchase photo reprints »
An uncertain future for the Northampton Center for the Arts did not prevent Peter Blanchette from presenting his sixth annual Bach’s birthday celebration at the center. It did, however, present him an opportunity to commemorate the space, using the music that has entertained audiences for centuries.
Blending his interpretations of classic Bach, with an added Spanish element, Blanchette’s annual Bach Birthday Concert will take place at the center Friday at 7:30 p.m. The concert will be the center’s final performance before its lease at 17 New South St. expires in July. The Center will end all programming there this month.
Though Blanchette had thought last year’s concert would be his final one at the venue, the center’s director, Penny Burke, decided there could be one last show.
“As time went by it became apparent to me, we’re still here, we haven’t left,” Burke said in a recent phone interview. “I got in touch with Peter and I said, ‘I can’t see any reason why we can’t do the Bach concert. Let’s make it a happy celebration,’ ” she said.
“It would have been easy for Penny to say we can’t have it here this year, but I think she really valued it,” Blanchette said.
It was no coincidence that the Bach concert was the final show scheduled for the center, Burke said.
“Something has to be the last thing,” Burke said. “I see it as a good positive, we have to end somewhere.”
Blanchette has been involved with the center for more than 20 years. In addition to his Bach birthday celebrations, he has performed there at Arts Night Out events and with the Happy Valley Guitar Orchestra, a resident group he directs at the center.
The guitar orchestra has used the space for rehearsals as well as performances, and, Blanchette says, he’s not sure where they’ll go once the center’s lease is up. He says he has looked for new rehearsal space for the nonprofit 21-member orchestra, but so far has come up empty.
“If they no longer have a venue or a place they can rehearse, it’s not an exaggeration to call it a crisis,” Blanchette said. “We’ve approached people who rent space and nobody has offered to help us.”
Burke said she will continue to work with the guitar orchestra and others who have been dependent on the Center.
“I expect we will continue to make it a joint project,” Burke said. “We’ll find a space.”
A blend of styles
The Bach Birthday Concert not only celebrates the spirit of the space and the music of Bach, but also the release of Blanchette’s new album, “Meseta,” a compilation of songs recorded during a tour last summer across northern Spain, where he played in small and large cathedrals.
“I found this tiny church and it had the most beautiful acoustics for playing, so the town gave me the keys,” Blanchette said. He discovered the church in Moratinos, a town about 100 kilometers from León. “I would go in and record from midnight to sunup. I didn’t edit it or anything, I just recorded for hours.”
He says the Center for the Arts ballroom, where he will perform, has similar acoustics.
“It’s a funny space for certain types of music, but it’s a wonderful listening space for my music,” he said.
Burke said the venue can be challenging for electric, rock bands, but has a special connection with Blanchette’s genre.
“It is absolutely perfect and magical for solo acoustic guitar,” she said.
Friday’s concert will combine solo and duo performances, including selections from Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin, as well as Spanish music from Bach’s time.
“Spanish music from around the time of Bach is really interesting because it’s lovely guitar music,” Blanchette said.
Performing together on archguitar, Blanchette and Elliot Gibbons of San Francisco will play pieces from Bach’s musical collection “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Gibbons is one of only a few other musicians in the world to play the instrument.
The archguitar, designed by Blanchette in 1981, has 11 to 13 strings, and is influenced by the Renaissance and Baroque lutes. It is superior, he says, to classical or acoustic guitars for playing Bach’s music.
“The people who wrote music in that time had a certain ideal of how to write music and he did it perfectly,” Blanchette said. “The beauty in that music, that’s what is really special about it.”
Although some view Bach’s music as old-fashioned, he says, “You can interpret his music in a new musical world. The most basic way is what instrument you play it on.”
Although Friday’s concert will be Blanchette’s last at the current home of the Center for the Arts, he says, he’s determined to continue the tradition.
“Not a year will go by without me doing this Bach concert.”
Bach’s Birthday Concert is Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Northampton Center for the Arts, 17 New South St. Tickets cost $15; $20 for preferred seating, and are available at www.archguitar.com. Blanchette’s CD, “Meseta,” will be on sale at the concert for $15. For information call 584-7327.