Back to Bach: UMass Amherst celebrates Baroque composer with festival, symposium

  • The UMass Orchestra and Chorus will perform Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” Saturday and Sunday.

  • British-born Simon Carrington, who’s perfomed worldwide as a singer and conductor, will conduct Bach’s “Mass in B Minor.” UMass Department of Music & Dance

  • Michael Marissen, music writer and emeritus professor of music at Swarthmore College, gives the keynote speech at the Bach Festival. Sigrid Estrada

  • Organizers of UMass Bach Festival & Symposium events this weekend say “there’s nothing quite like” the music of Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Elias Gottlob Haussmann/Public domain

  • UMass music professor and tenor William Hite is one of the soloists for “Mass in B Minor” and also an organizer of the Bach Festival. Marjorie Melnick

  • UMass music professors Fredric Cohen, left, and Elizabeth Chang, center, rehearse with students for the Bach festival. Matt Longhi

  • Monument for Johann Sebastian Bach in front of the "Thomas Church" (Thomaskirche), Leipzig, Saxony, Germany iStockphoto

Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2017

It’s fair to say he’s considered one of the greatest composers of all time, a master of counterpoint, harmony and rhythm and a skilled adapter of different musical ideas in his own work.

And if Johann Sebastian Bach is indeed one of the most important figures in western classical music, and perhaps the greatest composer of the Baroque era, then devoting an extended weekend to his music seems a logical move.

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the Department of Music and Dance will do just that from Friday to Sunday. The 2017 Bach Festival will bring together dozens of musicians — faculty, students, alumni and special guests — to perform some of Bach’s work, including “Mass in B Minor,” considered perhaps his greatest composition.

The weekend also features a symposium, led by visiting and UMass music scholars, that will examine the multiple ways Bach’s music continues to resonate today, from its impact on culture and its influence on composers, performers, music teachers and others.

It’s the second UMass Bach festival in two years — and perhaps the start of a tradition. In 2015, organizers like Elizabeth Chang. a violinist and a professor of music at the university, convened the festival to bring together people from across campus around Bach’s work.

In fact, Chang’s initial inspiration for the idea came from seeing the T-shirt one of her graduate students, Amanda Stenroos, was wearing one day: The shirt commemorated a Bach festival from Stenroos’ undergraduate alma mater, The Conservatory of Music at Baldwin Wallace in Ohio, that that school has hosted since 1933.

Chang was intrigued, and after talking with Stenroos about her experience, she began to think: Could we do something like that here at UMass?

Two years later, Chang says it’s still too early to say if UMass will continue to offer a semi-annual festival, or if the event will only focus on Bach. Nevertheless, she says the Baroque composer’s music is such a foundation of the western classical music canon that a regular festival for it “would be a good choice to make.”

“There’s really nothing quite like [Bach’s music],” she said in a recent phone call. “It’s a great entry point for students … I think there’s an emotional quality to it that’s unique.”

And for professional players and Bach scholars alike, the music continues to appeal, both because of the depth of his compositions and their sheer number: Bach has been credited with over 1,100 separate compositions.

Chang said the festival also offers a great opportunity for former UMass students to come back to campus to play; one performer this year is Stenroos, whose T-shirt helped inspire the festival’s creation. She now teaches violin at Northampton Community Music Center and is a coproducer of the UMass event.

The music

A number of small, free concerts of Bach’s music were held earlier this month at UMass, but the full festival opens Friday at 5 p.m., at Bezanson Recital Hall at the Fine Arts Center, with a performance by the university’s Opus One Chamber Orchestra, made up of 19 students and faculty members.

The concert includes Bach’s “Concerto for Oboe d’Amore in A Major,” the “Keyboard Concerto in G Minor,” and “Orchestra Suite No. 1 in C Major.” The soloists are UMass music professors: Chang on violin, Fredric T. Cohen on oboe and Gilles Vonsattel on piano (last month, Vonsattel made his debut as a soloist with the celebrated Munich Philharmonic).

Three UMass alumni singers will also offer a free performance of the “Coffee Cantana,” a rare piece of secular work by Bach, on Sunday morning at 11 a.m. at Share Coffee in Amherst.

The festival’s pièce de résistance, however, is “Mass in B Minor,” which will have two performances — 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday — at Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst.

It’s a big piece — Chang says it will have 60 performers, including a chorus and orchestra — and it’s also one of Bach’s last compositions, one that was never performed in its entirety during his lifetime. Since the 19th century, though, it’s won steady acclaim, to the point it’s now generally considered Bach’s masterwork, with an almost encyclopedic scope.

Simon Carrington, guest conductor for the two performances of “Mass in B Minor,” says Bach was “leaving a legacy” with the piece and reworked some of his earlier vocal music to great effect in the new composition.

“It’s a piece of enormous scale, but it’s also intimate and very human,” said Carrington, who was a professor of choral conducting at Yale University from 2003 to 20o9. “The interplay between the orchestra, the chorus and vocal soloists is absolutely beautiful.”

A native of Great Britain who’s had a long career as a singer, double bass player and conductor, Carrington was also the founder and first director of the Yale Schola Cantorum, a celebrated chamber choir that has performed nationally and overseas. One of his early teachers for the group was UMass music professor William Hite, a tenor Carrington had previously met.

Hite is one of five solo singers for “Mass in B Minor,” which Carrington says is also a good vehicle for students, such as the members of the UMass chorus, given “the light and bright quality of their voices.”

The talk

The scholarly symposium on Bach begins Friday night at 7 p.m. in Bezanson Recital Hall with a free discussion about “Mass in B Minor.” Saturday’s events (also at Bezanson) run from 8:30 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. and look to examine Bach’s modern impact. As text notes put it, Bach’s music “has inspired a voluminous amount of scholarship, [but] the impact and appropriation of his music in the 20th and 21st centuries remains relatively unexplored.”

Of particular interest may be the event’s keynote speaker, Michael Marissen, a professor emeritus of music at Swarthmore College who’s written widely on classical music, particularly that of Bach.

In his most recent book, “Bach & God,” Marissen explores the importance of religion in understanding Bach’s music, which is a particular challenge in our secular age.

Though he was raised in a devout Dutch Calvinist home in Canada, Marissen today considers himself an agnostic. But as the New Yorker magazine noted earlier this year in an article on the religious intensity of Bach’s music, Marissen says he can never be “a “comfortable agnostic” when he’s around those compositions.

Marissen’s research also confronts “an issue that many prefer to avoid,” as the New Yorker put it: whether some of Bach’s music is anti-semitic, given some of his pieces used the words of Martin Luther and other European religious figures of that era, who could be stridently anti-semitic. Luther wrote a lengthy diatribe, “On the Jews and Their Lies,” in 1543.

On a lighter note, two other topics at the symposium will consider Bach’s influence on rock, avant-garde music and even funk, such as the playing of the late Bernard Worrell — known as the “Wizard of Woo” — the keyboardist for George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic collective.

For more information on the UMass Bach Festival & Symposium, including ticket prices,visit blogs.umass.-edu/bach/.