The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is transformative.
It has motivated the work of nearly every great composer to follow in the history of Western Classical music. It continues to inspire those who hear it more than 269 years after Bach’s death.
The 12th biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival, the first under its new Artistic Director Julian Wachner, returns this week with eight days with a week of concerts and activities celebrating the life and work of the composer whose music represents the pinnacle of the Baroque Era.
An affiliate of the Grand Rapids Symphony, the Grand Rapids Bach Festival will present the inaugural Linn Maxwell Keller Distinguished Bach Musician Award, a $10,000 cash prize in memory of Keller, an accomplished singer who founded the festival in 1997.
Julian Wachner, a keyboardist, conductor, composer and a Grammy nominated recording artist, serves as Director of Music and the Arts at New York City’s historic Trinity Church Wall Street, and Wachner will bring his 28-voice choir to Grand Rapids during the eight-day festival opening March 17. The Bach Festival Artistic Director chair is sponsored by John & Mary Loeks | Studio C.
“Bach has been a lifelong fascination and passion of mine,” said Wachner, who grew up in a musical family. “I started playing Bach before I could speak.”
New York City’s Trinity Church Wall Street is famous. The church founded in 1697 was the setting for the climax of the 2004 film National Treasure. Its St. Paul’s Chapel, located across the street from the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, has become a pilgrimage site since 9/11.
Under Julian Wachner, Trinity Church Wall Street also has a rich musical tradition, performing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach not just a couple times a year but each and every week.
“We’ve done all of the choral and orchestral music of Bach, all 200 cantatas, and all the huge masterworks as well,” said Wachner, Director of Music and Arts and Trinity Church.
The 12th biennial festival, the first under Wachner as Artistic Director, is underway this week with concerts and activities celebrating the life and work of the composer whose music represents the pinnacle of the Baroque Era.
Guest artists include countertenor Daniel Taylor, a Sony Classical artist, who appears on more than 100 recordings; and organist Isabelle Demers, back by popular demand following her appearance at the 2017 Grand Rapids Bach Festival.
“There have been incredible artists who have joined the Festival including pianist Angela Hewitt and the Bach Collegium Japan under the direction of Maestro Masaki Suzuki,” Wachner said. “It is an incredible honor to follow in all of their footsteps in being part of this wonderful festival.”
Julian Wachner, a keyboardist, conductor, composer and a Grammy nominated recording artist, also gives a solo Organ Recital at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 18, in the Basilica of St. Adalbert with music of Bach plus virtuoso organ music by Maurice Duruflé and Charles-Marie Widor.
Mass Reimaginings at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 21, in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church features a performance of Bach’s Mass in A Major, which is notable for featuring two flutes along with countertenor Daniel Taylor, bass-baritone Dashon Burton, and choir and orchestra. It’s one of four Lutheran masses Bach composed later in life by drawing upon music he had written previously and replacing the texts.
“I actually see is that Bach was, toward the end of his life, trying to select his ‘best of’ album,” Wachner said. “’These are my favorite cantata movements that I wrote over a lifetime, and I want to memorialize them.”
Wachner also will lead the orchestra in his own Epistle Mass, composed for Trinity Church Wall Street.
In addition to the mass sung by choir, baritone Stephen Salter sings a new text by Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist Royce Vavrek.
“It’s a letter from the last person on earth, to a future alien race, should they happen to find it,” Wachner said. “It’s apocalyptic, but joyfully so.”
The Grammy-nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street travels to Grand Rapids for the performance.
“We’re so happy that we were able to make this collaboration possible,” Wachner said. “It seemed like the logical thing to do, and Trinity was very happy to be a part of it.”
Bach Magnificat, the festival finale concert at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 23, in the Basilica of St. Adalbert includes Bach’s setting of the Magnificat in D Major with guest soloists including soprano Molly Netter, tenor Brian Giebler, joined by Taylor and Burton.
“The Magnificat is an incredibly virtuoso work, filled with so many emotions and feelings and colors and orchestrations,” he said. “It’s a beautiful piece.”
Also on the program is Bach’s Cantata No. 110, “May Our Mouth Be Full of Laughter.” It’s another piece of that Bach adapted from an earlier work. Grand Rapids Symphony’s audience that attended last October’s Baroque Concert: Bach and Beyond will recognize the opening of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3, which GRS Music Director Marcelo Lehninger conducted in St. Cecilia Music Center.
“I thought it would be very interesting for people to hear that same music dressed up in a slightly different way, with added text,” Wachner said. “And once you hear it with added text, it’s hard to imagine that it exists as a purely instrumental work.”
Four acclaimed vocal soloists join the Grand Rapids Symphony and Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus for the program.
“They’re fantastic. They’re great,” Wachner said of the chorus. “And their director, Pearl Shangkuan, is world famous. Not everyone in Grand Rapids knows that, but she is.”
Among other concerts, the Grand Rapids Symphony percussion section presents MarimBACH, an evening of 18th century music on marimbas and other mallet instruments, at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 19, in Fountain Street Church.
The 2019 Grand Rapids Bach Festival welcomes back French-Canadian organist Isabelle Demers for a solo recital at 12 noon on Wednesday, March 20, in Grace Episcopal Church in East Grand Rapids.
Three guest vocal soloists, soprano Molly Netter, countertenor Daniel Taylor, and bass-baritone Dashon Burton, will perform three cantatas by Bach for a program titled Noontime Bach at 12 noon on Friday, March 22, in First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids.
Besides musical performances, “Bach in the City” will include such activities as BACHBends yoga and KinderBACH for young children and adults. Locally, the Donut Conspiracy and Love’s Ice Cream have created special, limited-time taste treats especially for the 12th biennial festival.
A special $40 Bach Pass, in addition to priority seating at all concerts and entry to two exclusive post-concert receptions, includes discounts at local restaurants including MeXo Restaurant, Littlebird Restaurant, and Linear Restaurant as well as at Apothecary Off Main on Monroe Center.
Organized in 1997 as a three-day celebration of the music of Bach, the first Grand Rapids Bach Festival engaged German organist, scholar and conductor Karl Hochreither, a noted authority on Bach’s church music, to serve as music director for several of the early festivals.
Linn Maxwell Keller died in 2016, but the Grand Rapids Bach Festival she founded lives on.
“It's established as long as the people of Grand Rapids want this festival,” Keller told The Grand Rapids Press in 2003. “As long as people are blessed by it and enjoy the music, it looks like we'll be around for a while.”