A Bach Tapestry

It’s been a JS Bach sort of week, what with the tiff screening on Wednesday (“Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach” coming Friday, March 3 at 6:30 p.m)  and the press release announcing the upcoming Bach Festival, including a reconstruction of a St Mark Passion.

Sometimes we’re more receptive to things, whether it’s food or art or music, depending on what else we’ve been feeling or experiencing. I’m particularly blessed to be coming to tonight’s concert just at this time, a concert titled ”A Bach Tapestry”.

So yes it was all Bach tonight with Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir at Jeanne Lamon Hall, and will be again Saturday & Sunday, Feb 11 -12, as well as Valentine’s Day at the George Weston Recital Hall.

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Ivars Taurins (photo: Sian Richards)

We were in the capable hands of Ivars Taurins, not just conducting but actually curating. The word has acquired some cachet of late, in this time of convergence, when the boundaries between disciplines crumble. The program notes were wonderfully suggestive, whetting our appetite for the many varieties of JS Bach we experienced. Bach is an idea, a platonic ideal of music and composition, especially for the human voice singing praise to God. If a concert is understood to be a kind of trial, where the performers advocate for the composer, their performances arguing for the importance of that composer, Taurins & co. succeeded admirably.

Is Bach the greatest composer of all?? A concert like this one certainly seeks to make the case, and it was a persuasive night, via choral singing with a few instrumental appetizers to cleanse the palette.

One of the bizarre challenges Bach poses is in the sheer volume of music, enormous numbers of cantatas written each year of his life. While there are a great number of well-known pieces – two of which put in appearances tonight—there are a great many that aren’t known. And as Taurins says in the programme, it’s not that the unknown pieces are inferior, quite the contrary.

There is a difference, though, when musicians play well-known pieces. There’s a different kind of attention to the familiar, and playing such pieces is different as well. You could sense this when we came to those greatest hits, that were so well received:

  • Chorale “Jesu bleibet meine Freude” from Cantata 147
  • An original arrangement of the Italian Concerto –a solo work for keyboard—as a concerto for two violins, in the manner of Vivaldi.

Another remarkable moment –and for me the highlight of the evening—came in the Chorus “Und wenn die Welt” from Cantata 80, with swirling orchestral convulsions surrounding the simple and direct choral statement of Luther’s reformation hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”, as if to illustrate the perils and evils surrounding humankind. I’d never heard this adaptation before, sung so clearly and with marvelous conviction under Taurins’ joyous leadership, but it will now inform every other version (whether the adaptations by Mendelssohn and Ullmann or the original hymn in a church) as I hear them live or in my head. I suspect that for those who are more thoroughly immersed in their Bach than I (a fellow who knows only a few famous pieces),  this too was one of the “greatest hits”; but from now on, me too!

Who’s the greatest of them all? While we may have had a Mozart festival not so long ago, and orchestras will celebrate Beethoven, Bach endures. A full evening of Bach, and I simply want more.  More!

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