Back to Bach: UMass Amherst presents its third Bach Festival and Symposium

  • The UMass Festival Chorus will be part of the Saturday evening performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” at the UMass Fine Arts Center. Photo by Jon Crispin/courtesy UMass Dept. of Music & Dance

  • Andrew Megill, conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, will conduct “St. Matthew Passion.” Photo courtesy of the Carmel Bach Festival

  • Coffee comes with free live music when Bach’s “Coffee Cantata” is performed Sunday morning at Amherst Coffee. Photo by Jon Crispin/courtesy UMass Dept. of Music & Dance

  • Columbia University scholar Lydia Goehr delivers the keynote address Saturday at the Bach Symposium, held at Bezanson Recital Hall. Photo courtesy Lydia Goehr/UMass Dept. of Music & Dance

  • A 1748 portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. Organizers of the 2019 Bach Festival say the Baroque-era composer “changed the face of music.”  Image from Wikipedia/public domain

For the Gazette
Published: 4/10/2019 4:40:32 PM

It’s hard to say if hosting an event three times in five years constitutes a tradition. But at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the signs seem to be pointing in that direction when it comes to celebrating the music of J.S. Bach.

This Friday through Sunday, the University’s Department of Music and Dance will host its third Bach Festival and Symposium, first presented in 2015 and again in 2017.  The festival has grown into a monumental affair, with numerous featured performances, guest musicians, cantatas, keynote speakers and more — and organizers say they believe the 2019 version will be the biggest one yet.

And, says professor of violin Elizabeth Chang, there will be more to come in the future. Though festival organizers have previously discussed hosting a major event on other composers, they’re settled now on the man generally regarded as the greatest composer of the Baroque era and simply one the greatest composers of all time.

As Chang puts it, “It’s a Bach Festival” in the future at UMass. 

Though the main performances of the 2015 and 2017 festivals were held in Grace Episcopal Church of Amherst, this year the big concert takes place in the UMass Fine Arts Center’s concert hall — on Saturday at 7 p.m. — to accommodate the massive production of “St. Matthew Passion,” one of Bach’s sacred oratorios.

“It’s an epic piece,” says Tony Thornton, UMass director of choral studies and a festival organizer. “It has two orchestras and two choirs that would simply just not fit in Grace.”

Clocking in at about three hours and 15 minutes, “St. Matthew Passion,” which Bach wrote in 1727, is the largest production yet for the UMass Bach Festival. Andrew Megill, conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra Chorus, will conduct the piece.

The oratorio features several solo vocalists as well, including UMass assistant professor of voice William Hite (also a festival organizer), who takes the role of “The Evangelist”; baritone Paul Max Tipton in the role of Christus (Christ); and Grammy-nominated mezzo-soprano Thea Lobo. The production includes the Hampshire Young People’s Chorus as well.

“It takes an army to put something like this together,” said Thorton.

This year’s festival also features an alumni concert, with former students performing sacred cantatas on Sunday at 3 p.m. in Bezanson Recital Hall.

“It’s like the after-party from St. Matthew’s Passion,” Hite joked.

Violinist Amanda Stenroos, a UMass graduate and a festival organizer, believes former students will be thrilled to return to the university for the festival. “I think it’s probably quite an honor to play at their alma mater. It’s also a great way to keep the alumni community together.”

Stenroos, a 2015 graduate of the UMass master’s program in violin performance who now teaches at the Northampton Community Music Center, played a pivotal role in bringing the Bach Festival to life. A former student of Chang, she came to a lesson one day wearing a T-shirt from a longstanding Bach Festival at her undergraduate school, The Conservatory of Music at Baldwin Wallace in Ohio. Chang saw the shirt and thought, Could we do that here? 

Community is an important aspect of the Bach Festival, organizers say, and just as Bach had pieces to accommodate nearly every instrument, the festival invites people from all backgrounds to celebrate his music, including at a faculty performance featuring UMass pianist Gilles Vonsattel on Friday at 4 p.m. at Benzanson Hall.

“That’s the great thing about it,” said Hite. “There are current students, there are alums, there are faculty, there are people from the Pioneer Valley music community who are integral in making it happen … It’s a really cool mixture, and everyone benefits.”

Fun and serious Bach

Another community engagement tool of the festival is Bach’s “Coffee Cantata.” If you’re going to get your Sunday morning coffee, why not hear a cantata as well?

The Coffee Cantata, which takes place at Amherst Coffee on Sunday at 11 a.m., centers on an argument between a father and daughter about her love of coffee, a new and controversial drink in Bach’s time.

“It’s very comical, and it premiered in a cafe-like setting,” Stenroos said.

Though he calls it the opposite of “St. Matthew Passion,” Hite says the Coffee Cantata is a crowd pleaser and draws a large audience to a more informal performance. It will feature three vocalists and four to five instrumentalists, and it will also be translated to English, or “the language of the people,” as Hite puts it.

Meantime, the Bach Scholarly Symposium, which takes place Friday evening and on Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. at Benzanson Hall, features presentations from numerous music historians and theorists. The symposium has been organized by Erinn Knyt, UMass associate professor of music history, and Ernest May, UMass professor emeritus of musicology and organ.

Keynote speaker Lydia Goehr is a professor of philosophy at Columbia University and a Mellon and Guggenheim fellowship winner; her research includes the philosophy of music and aesthetics. She will speak at 1:45 p.m. on Saturday on “The Work of Music: Situating Bach in a Public Culture of Blasphemy, Devotion, and Resurrection.” 

“This symposium is about performing and re-creating Bach today,” said Knyt. “It’s focusing more exclusively on the aspects of performance and transcriptions, arrangements and recreations of Bach’s music.”

Other speakers include Yo Tomita, of Queen’s University in Belfast; Ruth HaCohen, of Hebrew University in Jerusalem; Andrea Moore of Smith College; and Knyt, who will discuss Ferruccio Busoni’s version of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”

“I present a reception history of this particular piece, which is problematic because Bach wrote it for double manual harpsichord,” said Knyt. “It is very difficult to play on the modern piano,” though she notes Busoni popularized the piece with his variation.

With all of the work that goes into making this festival and symposium happen, it’s worth asking a basic question: Why Bach? Why focus all of this effort into celebrating one composer?

That’s simple, organizers say: Bach changed the face of music, and everyone — musicians, conductors, music lovers — can find something to like in his work. As Hite sees it, Bach’s music can unite people from all backgrounds.

“I think if you asked any classical musician, or perhaps … musicians in other genres, where Western music grew from, they would probably say Bach,” said Stenroos. 

“People say Bach is both revolutionary and timeless, and I think that’s always been the case,” Chang added. “This is the core repertoire for all of us.”

The UMass Bach Festival takes place Friday to Sunday, April 12-14. Some events are free for everyone, and some are free for UMass students with ID. For general admission ticket prices and a full schedule of events, visit

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