A passion for Bach: UMass festival celebrates music, legacy of baroque composer

Last modified: Thursday, May 28, 2015

It started with a T-shirt.

More specifically, it was the T-shirt that Amanda Stenroos, a University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate student in music, was wearing one day in early 2014 when she walked in for a violin class with her professor, Elizabeth Chang.

The shirt, which dated from Stenroos’ undergraduate days at The Conservatory of Music at Baldwin Wallace in Ohio, came from a J.S. Bach festival that school has hosted since 1933 — the oldest collegiate Bach festival in the country. Chang was intrigued, and after talking with Stenroos about her experience, she began to think: Could we do something like that here at UMass?

The answer, a little more than a year later, is yes. On Friday, the school’s Department of Music and Dance opens a weekend of concerts of Bach’s music that will be performed by dozens of musicians — UMass and Five College faculty members, local professional and alumni players, advanced student players and a number of national performers — both on campus and in selected venues in Amherst. Two of the shows are free, and two require tickets.

That’s not all: The festival includes a symposium, led by visiting and UMass music scholars, that will examine the multiple ways Bach’s music continues to resonate today, from influencing the overall culture to inspiring many 20th-century composers.

Oh, and it just so happens the festival comes shortly after the 330th anniversary of Bach’s birth in Germany. That’s a handy date to hang the event on, Chang says, but the more important goal has been to make the festival a seminal event that brings together musicians, scholars and the community as a whole.

“We think this a tremendous opportunity for both musicians and music lovers,” said Chang, a concert violinist and professor of violin and one of the key organizers of the festival. “It’s been a lot of work to pull this together, but there’s been an incredible amount of enthusiasm all across campus to make it happen.”

Chang and other organizers have discussed the possibility of making the festival a semi-annual event, though it’s too early to say if that will take place, and it’s not clear whether it would be dedicated specifically to Bach or to other composers. Another option might be to concentrate on music from a certain period, said William Hite, a tenor and UMass voice teacher who’s also a coordinator for the upcoming festival.

“Bach in particular is a great entry point to try this out,” said Hite, who with Chang will be among the roughly 100 performers at the festival that runs Friday through Sunday. “I think what’s exciting about this is that it gives students a chance to be part of something really memorable. Plus the chancellor has talked about ways to make UMass a destination, and this could be one way to make that happen.”

‘A lot of moving parts’

The breadth of Bach’s music gave organizers much to work with. The weekend’s concerts begin with Friday performances of some of his best-loved works, the Brandenburg Concertos, by chamber groups built around violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, piano and harpsichord; Chang and Amanda Stenroos, the UMass graduate student, are among the musicians in this group. The performances, which begin at 5 p.m. at Bezanson Recital Hall in the Fine Arts Center, are free.

On Saturday at 7:30 p.m., at Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Amherst, the weekend’s biggest musical showcase takes place: “St. John Passion,” an oratorio that brings together the 28-member UMass Chamber Choir, a 25-member orchestra, and a number of solo singers.

“It has a lot of moving parts,” said Hite, the lead soloist.

Hite describes the “Passion” as a liturgical drama, with some operatic elements, that depicts the last days of Jesus Christ, as based on the narrative in the Gospel according to John. Bach wrote the work in 1724, then revised it the following year and then a number of times in succeeding years; the UMass version, from 1725, is not often performed, organizers say.

Hite will perform the role of The Evangelist, who narrates the words of the bible. It’s a piece he’s performed a number of times and has recorded as well.

“It’s an incredibly rich and inspiring work,” he said.

One of the festival’s key guest artists, baroque specialist Julian Wachner, will oversee this big stage production as its guest conductor. Wachner is a Grammy Award-nominated composer, keyboardist and conductor, and the music and arts director for Trinity Church in New York City.

“To have someone of his stature at our festival is really exciting,” Chang said.

Tony Thornton, the director of the UMass Chamber Choir, will serve as chorus master for the concert.

Sunday offers two smaller concerts, including a free show at 11 a.m. at Rao’s Coffee in downtown Amherst by Terpsichore, a small vocal group that will perform Bach’s “Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht” (“Be still, stop chattering”). The piece, also known as the “Coffee Cantata,” is a miniature comic opera about coffee addiction.

And at 3 p.m. Sunday, in Bezanson Recital Hall in the UMass Fine Arts Center, the concerts conclude with two sonatas built around flute, violin, cello and harpsichord, and then a Cantana, “Hercules at the Crossroads,” with vocal soloists and a small chamber orchestra.

Bach talk

There will be plenty of conversation about Bach over the weekend as well, particularly on Saturday when 14 speakers, including leading national music scholars, host an all-day symposium. Topics will include recent archival discoveries, the adaptations of Bach’s music for TV, film and video games, and political controversies that have sometimes arisen over his work, such how it was interpreted in West and East Germany after World War II.

Erinn Knyt, a UMass professor of music history and one of Saturday’s speakers, has been a principal organizer of the symposium, which takes place at Bezanson Recital Hall; there’s an additional panel discussion Friday at 7:30 p.m. in the recital hall. Though the events are geared toward academics, Knyt added that “There’s plenty here for anyone with a general interest in Bach.”

For example, one panelist, Matthew Cron, who teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music and is also the organist of Amherst’s Immanuel Lutheran Church, will talk about how widespread Bach’s music is in other forms of media. According to Cron, Bach’s compositions can be found in 850 films, TV shows, and video games — from iconic films such as “The Godfather” and “Schindler’s List” to TV series like “M*A*S*H*” to cartoons such as “The Simpsons.”

“[Bach] is looked on as a founding figure of western music,” said Knyt. “He drew on a number of international influences to create a unique body of music, and the work he did with things like counterpoint is timeless.”

To be able to gather so many musicians and scholars at UMass to celebrate all that “is thrilling,” Knyt added. “We hope people in the community will want to take part in it.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

For more information on the J.S. Bach Festival, including a full schedule and ticket prices for two of the concerts, visit www.umass.edu/music/BachFestivalConcerts2015.php. Information on the Bach symposium, including a registration fee, is available at www.umass.edu/music/BachSymposium2015.php.


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