In 1979, classical music lovers in the Inland Northwest gathered for the first Northwest Bach festival. The program featured some of Spokane's best known musicians: Ann Fennessy, Kelly Farris, Verne Windham, Thomas Hampson and a host of others participated in recitals, lectures, concerts and even a "Bach the Snowman" sculpture contest. That first festival, which was spearheaded by David Dutton and Beverly Biggs (now artistic directors of Allegro: Baroque and Beyond) drew praise, audiences and contributors, many of whom still support the festival a quarter of a century later. In the program notes for the first year, Dutton wrote, "There is... the hope that future annual festivals of this kind will lead us all to a closer understanding of ourselves as human beings."
Twenty-five years later, in a world much changed, and full of new challenges, audiences can once again turn to Bach's genius in order to better understand our own condition.
Since that first year, the Northwest Bach Festival, which is put on by Connoisseur Concerts, has grown both in size and in prestige. The list of local performers who have participated in the festival is like a Who's Who of Inland Northwest talent. Additionally, the festival continues to draw musicians of the highest quality from all over the world.
One of the reasons so many world-class musicians want to be involved with the festival, particularly in recent years, has to do with how the festival has changed and grown over the years. In the early 1990s, when Stefan Kozinski resigned as artistic director, word got out quickly that the spot was vacant. Before they had even had a chance to post the position, Connoisseur Concerts was receiving the resumes of interested conductors.
"At the time Stefan Kozinski resigned from the festival, the word got out and we were getting stacks of applications," explains Gertrude Harvey, executive director of Connoisseur Concerts. The board discussed the opening and decided to approach Gunther Schuller about the job.
"Gunther has a long relationship with Spokane musicians," says Harvey. "But Bach is not something he's known for at all... he was so delighted to be considered to do a Bach festival. And he had all the elements in place to step in and do this festival."
Schuller's leadership over the last 10 years has brought a wealth of outside performers to the festival, including harpsichordist Ilton Wjuniski, flautist Michael Faust and organist James David Christie.
"Many musicians perform in the festival because of the opportunity to work with Gunther Schuller," Harvey says. "I've heard many local people say that their skills are really enhanced by working with him."
Under his leadership, the scope of the festival has also expanded its educational offerings for students as well as the general public. Eastern Washington University hosts mini-recitals, master classes and other interactive sessions with musicians during the festival.
"We've really developed those offerings in a big way," Harvey explains. "It's a great experience for these students from Eastern to have the opportunity to work with these musicians. Unfortunately, we have more specialists on hand than we have time to schedule."
This year's schedule is indeed a full one. And unlike many Bach festivals, the offerings are mostly by J.S. Bach himself.
"Some Bach festivals actually do very little Bach," explains Harvey. "There's so much music available. I think it's easy to stray. Gunther has really focused heavily on the music of Bach and those he influenced, and those who influenced him."
The festival opens Friday with a "Gala Evening of Bach's Piano Music," featuring Boston-based Veronica Jochum on piano. This unique event will be held in the elegant Marie Antoinette Room at the Davenport Hotel. One of the concerts of the festival's first year was held at the Davenport, so it is fitting that Bach's music would return to that venue this year.
The weekend continues Saturday with the festival's first performance outside the city limits. This concert is also free of charge. The Spokane Youth Orchestra and the Spokane Area Children's Chorus combine with actors Darnelle Preston, Patrick Treadway and Susan Windham to present "A Day in the Life of Mrs. Bach" at the Spokane Valley Church of the Nazarene.
One of the highlights of this year's festival is Bach's Christmas Oratorio performed at St. John's Cathedral. The festival will be performing it in English rather than the original German, but it is a treat to hear it in live performance at all. Rarely performed due to its length and difficulty, it is actually six separate cantatas. Together, however, they form one cohesive work.
The only concert that features a composer other than Bach is Mozart's Requiem, which will also be performed at St. John's Cathedral. The Requiem has been heard in Spokane before, but the authorship of this piece, which Mozart composed on his deathbed and left unfinished, has been a point of much speculation.
Professor Robert Levin of Harvard has published a new edition of the work, which musicologists believe better reflects Mozart's style and genius than versions that have been used previously. Levin's edition corrects many of the mistakes made by Mozart's pupil Franz Xaver Sussmayr, who is purported to have finished the piece for Mozart after the composer's death.
"Robert Levin has done extensive work on the Requiem," Harvey says. "Gunther's association with Robert Levin made it possible to have him here this year as a guest lecturer." Levin will share his expertise at a pre-concert talk.
The final free concert of the festival will be held at St. Augustine's Church. James David Christie will be performing several of Bach's organ works. Bach was well known not only as a composer but as one of the great organists of his time.
The variety of venues the festival utilizes is another of its attractions. Bach's music was heard everywhere from private homes to grand cathedrals, and Connoisseur Concerts has tried to keep that tradition alive.
"This music is glorious no matter where you hear it," says Harvey. "But fortunately we have such beautiful venues in Spokane that we have more than we can use. It feels appropriate and right to use as many of our local venues as we can."
The festival's success over 25 years can be attributed to many things, but Harvey thinks it is Bach's unique appeal that keeps people coming back to perform and to listen.
"What you see so often is that the symphony orchestras don't play Bach. It's so glorious and it's so rarely performed apart from a festival," Harvey says. "Sometimes I worry that people think Bach is completely above their heads, but it's so beautiful you don't even have to know anything about it to enjoy it."
The Northwest Bach festival schedule:
Friday, Jan. 31 at 8 pm "A Gala Evening of Bach's Piano Music" takes place in The Marie Antoinette Room at the Davenport Hotel, hosted by Verne Windham and featuring dessert and champagne. Tickets: $35 for reserved table seating; $30, general admission.
Saturday, Feb. 1 at 7 pm "A Day in the Life of Mrs. Bach" brings the Spokane Youth Orchestra and the Spokane Area Children's Chorus together at the Spokane Valley Church of the Nazarene, 15515 E. 20th at Sullivan Road in the Valley. Free.
Sunday, Feb. 2 at 4 pm "J.S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio" at St. John's Cathedral, Grand Blvd. at 12th Ave. Tickets: $20; $10, students.
Friday, Feb. 7 at 8 pm "Mozart Requiem" at St. John's Cathedral, Grand Blvd. at 12th Ave. Tickets: $20; $10, students.
Saturday Feb. 8 at 2 pm "Johann Sebastian Bach the Virtuoso Organist" at St. Augustine's Church, 428 W. 19th. Free.
Free Educational Events: EWU Music Building Recital Hall
Thursday, Jan. 30, 3-5 pm Piano Master Class with Veronica Jochum
Friday, Jan. 31, 11 am-1 pm Gunther Schuller, The Art of Composition Then and Now, Discussion and Chamber Music Master Class
Wednesday, Feb. 3, 10 am-noon Mary Dolata, An Introduction to Historical Dance
Friday, Feb. 7, 11 am-1 pm Robert Levin, Improvisation in Classical Music