By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -
Hard as it is to believe, Johann Sebastian Bach’s children thought him to be something of an old fuddy duddy.
Toward the end of his life, Bach’s four sons who had achieved success as professional musicians sometimes looked askance at their aging father’s work.
Music of the middle 18th century was moving toward simpler melodies, lighter harmonies and simpler forms, paving the way for the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart. Yet Old Bach stubbornly clung to the compositional practices and musical forms of the high Baroque era.
For that, we thank our lucky stars.
Today, if you ask people to name the greatest composer who ever lived, not all, but the majority will pick the J.S. Bach himself.
The music of Bach speaks for itself, for the impact it’s had on the history of music, and for the effect it continues to have on listeners.
The Grand Rapids Bach Festival is solid proof. The final concert of the 2017 Bach Festival in Cornerstone University’s Christ Chapel on Saturday, March 11, was standing-room only.
The 11th biennial festival closed after a week’s worth of music in locations large and small in Grand Rapids including a Creative Keyboards concert earlier in the week.
“Joyful Bach: Choral Celebration” was the title for the final concert. It was indeed.
Four guest singers, the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus and its Youth Chorus joined the Grand Rapids Symphony for an evening of music from a series of Bach’s cantatas, both sacred and secular. Some of the best music from Bach’s middle years.
David Lockington, music director of the Grand Rapids Bach Festival, conducted as well as narrated a performance of depth and substance as well as entertainment. The program opened with three trumpets blazing in Bach’s Easter Oratorio Overture and ended in a celebration with “Jauchzet Frohlocket (Shout for Joy)” from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.
Though much of the program featured solo voice, important instrumental solos from members of the Grand Rapids Symphony were crucial to a successful performance.
Music such as “Herz und Mund (Heart and Mouth)” from Cantata No. 147, featuring the symphony chorus and solo by Principal Trumpet Charley Lea was big, bold and musically nourishing at the same time.
Tenor Ross Hauck, who has appeared previously with the Grand Rapids Symphony, a singer with a melodious instrument, was featured in two solos, the though second was more of a duet. Hauck’s heavenly voice was paired with violinist Eric Tanner in a sophisticated, florid solo on “Ich traue seiner gnaden (I trust in His Grace)” from Cantata No. 97.
Extraordinary moments included soprano Jeanine De Bique singing aria “Sich uben im Lieben (To Grow in Love)” from Bach’s “Wedding Cantata” No. 202 featuring Principal Oboe Ellen Sherman with a florid solo. It’s entirely possible that the widowed Bach composed it for his marriage to his second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach. It’s possible as well that the young bride, a soprano, sang it at their wedding in December 1721. De Bique, a native of Trinidad and a singer with a gorgeous voice, smiled brightly and swayed happily to the beautiful music.
Eyes grew wide when Michael Maniaci sang “Widerstehe doch der Sunde (Stand firm against Sin)” from Cantata No. 54. From the mouth of a grown man emerged a beautiful male soprano voice well suited to complement the sweet sounds of the Grand Rapids Symphony.
Not everything was oh-so-serious. Baritone Stephen Bryant was the sadder but wiser soloist in “Chi in amore (One who is crossed in love)” from a secular Cantata No. 203, which waggishly pointed out, if you’re unlucky in love, quit while you’re ahead.
The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus displayed its range with the robust “Himmelskonig sie willkommen (King of Heaven, welcome)” from Cantata No. 182 and then soothed the audience with the gentle lullaby of “Sheep may Safely Graze” from Cantata No. 208.
Not to be outdone, the Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus helped give a festive spin to “Nun danket alle Gott (Now Thank We All Our God)” from Cantata No. 79.
Undoubtedly a highlight was both choruses joing with the orchestra to sing the well-known “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” from Cantata No. 147. With the children of the Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus surrounding the circular sanctuary, it truly was a surround sound experience.
The final concert included a few words about Grand Rapids Bach Festival founder Linn Maxwell Keller as well as a recording of the world-class mezzo soprano singing. Keller, who died in June 2016, launched the biennial festival in 1997 to bring the music of Bach to Grand Rapids.
The 11th annual festival is proof positive the community has embraced the music of Bach. Though Keller is sorely missed, the Grand Rapids Bach Festival is continuing as she hoped it would.