By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -
Johann Sebastian Bach spent most of his musical career in the service of God and the church, composing and performing masterpieces such as his St. Matthew and St. John Passions and his immortal B minor Mass.
In his youth, Bach got to cut loose and have a little fun.
On display at the Grand Rapids Bach Festival’s Creative Keyboards concert on Tuesday, March 9, was music mostly from Bach’s years in Kothën. His life as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt- Kothën wasn’t footloose, but it was as fancy free as could be in the service of an aristocrat who, in his bachelor days anyway, was keen on having good music.
The keyboards that Bach knew – harpsichord and organ – were featured prominently in a fun and entertaining evening of music led by David Lockington, Grand Rapids Symphony’s Music Director Laureate.
Fun and entertaining but enlightening nonetheless at the performance that’s part of the 11th biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival.
Two gifted keyboardists, plus a third well on the way to becoming one as well, were the special guests for the program, featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony, held at Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.
Harpsichordist Ian Watson was soloist in Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G major, a set of six pieces based on dance rhythms, though you’d be hard pressed to dance to them. Nor would you want the distraction with Watson performing brilliantly.
Harpsichord is a finicky instrument. Its sound is delicate and precise with little room to hide and no room for error. Yet Watson truly makes the harpsichord sing. The energetic courante electrified the audience, and the lively gigue was a toe-tapping good time.
Organist Isabelle Demers performed Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor BWV 542. It’s one of two nicknamed “great,” and Demers’ stalwart performance did justice to its moniker.
An exception to the all-Bach program was Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ and Orchestra in G minor. Poulenc was inspired by the previously performed Bach Fantasia and Fugue, and the connections are unmistakable. Yet Poulenc set out to be even more entertaining than Bach.
Lockington led a smart performance full of Gallic grace, brimming with bonhomie. Contrasts in the organ manuals between great and organ added to the power and majesty of the performance. The concert finale at times was exquisitely beautiful. At other times, even with a chamber-sized orchestra, it rattled the rafters.
The Grand Rapids Symphony, since 2013, has been the presenter of the Grand Rapids Bach Festival and two of its own, principal flutist Chris Kantner and principal second violinist Eric Tanner, were soloists along with Watson for Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.
The Brandenburg Concertos need little introduction. They remain among Bach’s more popular works, and the set of six are some of the finest orchestral music of the Baroque. On top of that, with each one, Bach made notable advancements in the art and craft of composition.
As the story goes, Bach wrote this particular concerto to show off a new harpsichord that he personally had acquired in Berlin for the court at Kothën, and Bach himself played it for the premiere. It’s an undoubted virtuoso work for keyboard with a dazzling solo cadenza in the first movement, written out. Watson played it superbly.
Yet the work also is a gift to flutists and violinists. Bach wrote the middle movement just for the two plus harpsichord, and Kantner, which his wooden flute, and Tanner joined Watson for a beautiful trio.
Pianist Emily Foster, winner of the Creative Young Keyboard Artists Competition, a collaboration between Grand Rapids Community College and the Grand Rapids Bach Festival, deftly performed the Prelude and Fugue No. 21 in B-flat Major from the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Her handling of it was elegant, insightful and thoroughly polished, especially considering she’s only 16 years old.
Seasoned musicians could take a lesson from Emily in how to stand proudly and smile broadly for an appreciate audience.