Recap: Grand Rapids Bach Festival opens with Julian Wachner and an amazing evening of organ music

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

During his lifetime, Johann Sebastian Bach wasn’t well-known as a composer. But in the region of Germany in which his last name was synonymous with musician, Bach was widely regarded as the greatest organist of his day.

In West Michigan, the 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival opened with a magnificent solo organ recital by its new Artistic Director Julian Wachner. Some 450 people filled the Basilica of St. Adalbert for an amazing evening of music by Bach plus virtuoso organ works by Maurice Duruflé and Charles-Marie Widor.

The 12th biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival promises eight days of wonderful music, including solo cantatas, choral music and solo organ recitals you’d naturally expect. But the festival that opened March 17 also includes MarimBach featuring Grand Rapids Symphony percussionists playing the music of Bach on marimbas.

Activities also include BachBends, a program of yoga to the music of Bach, and KinderBach, a play-based program for young children and adults. If that isn’t enough, six young singers on Tuesday and Thursday will compete for the $10,000 Linn Maxwell Keller Distinguished Bach Musician Award.

But the first evening of the 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival belonged to Wachner and the “King of Instruments.”

The program especially was a treat for the audience. Though the organist ion the Basilica of St. Adalbert is situated in the loft to the rear of the congregation, closed-circuit TV, using three cameras and three strategically placed screens, gave the listeners a close look at Wachner’s fingers and feet throughout the performance.

Much as Bach was Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig for the final 27 years of his life, supervising music at four churches in the mercantile city in the Electorate of Saxony, Wachner is director of music and arts at New York City’s famed Trinity Wall Street Church in the financial district of lower Manhattan.

Like Bach, Wachner also is a composer, and the Bach Festival will hear some of Wachner’s music on Thursday for a program titled Mass Reimaginings at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, which will feature the 28-voice Choir of Trinity Wall Street.

And like Bach, Wachner is an accomplished virtuoso who performed an elegantly tasteful version of Durufle’s Prelude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain, and a show stopping performance of Widor’s Toccata from Symphonie No. 5, which made good use of the resources of St. Adalbert’s Wicks pipe organ.

Naturally, music by Bach filled a large portion of the program.

Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, is a work of considerable musical and theological significance, but Wachner proved to be a match for the florid artistry of the prelude, and he was a noble interpreter of the hymn tune commonly known as “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”

No less impressive was his performance of Bach’s Fantasia in G major, Piece d’Orgue, a three-part work, which Wachner imaginatively said implies three stages of life from childhood to adulthood to old age. The first part was a delightful section for manuals only, suggesting children at play. The dense, polyphonic middle section called to mind the challenges and complexities of maturity. The finale, growing softer with a slow, descending progression in the pedals called to mind the quiet of final years and the peaceful conclusion to a long life. Taken together it made for an interesting musical journey led by a master performer.

The program opened with a familiar melody, Wachner’s Fanfare Variations on Jean-Joseph Mouret’s Rondeau, which is well-known to viewers of PBS-TV’s Masterpiece.

Bach in his day was renowned as an improviser at the keyboard. It’s a tradition that Wachner not only continues to practice, he excels at as well.

Prior to the performance, he solicited written ideas from the audience for the promised performance. From them, he selected two themes with little in common for his “Improvisation in Three Movements.”

It opened with Irish hymn tune Slane, commonly known as Be Thou My Vision, in an imaginative interpretation of the traditional melody, often fragmented into bits that poked through the accompaniment. That segued into a sly, subversive improvisation on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, which took the audience a while to catch on to until he made it crystal clear with an obvious statement of the melody using the organ’s chimes.

The finale, which blended the two incongruous melodies, was the most imaginative of all with a little of the former and a little of the latter. The audience loved it.

Prior to the performance, Wachner asked the audience to sing a verse of “Be Thou My Vision” and kicked it off. He was delighted to discover they not only could sing it, they were willing to do it.

“I’m not sure that would happen in New York City,” he said with a laugh.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 8:00 AM
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