February is a month that cries out for a little celebration. The ground has been covered with snow for three months, and that blasted rodent in Pennsylvania has predicted six more weeks of wintery weather. The days gradually lengthen and the sun - when it actually makes an appearance - shines with more strength as the month goes on, but maintaining one's optimism here in the northern latitudes is not easy.
As a nation, we've invented a couple of holidays to help us get by, and we like to borrow the manic carnival atmosphere of Mardi Gras and other pre-Lenten festivals from around the world. But here in the Inland Northwest, we have our own annual ritual to help us pass a week in the longest short month on the calendar: the Northwest Bach Festival, back for its 23rd incarnation starting this weekend.
The depth of influence that J.S. Bach has had on the musical world is certainly enough to justify at least a week's worth of performances each year. Two of the festival's organizers - artistic director Gunther Schuller and Gertrude Harvey, executive director of Connoisseur Concerts - emphasize Bach's continued relevance to musical audience today.
"This is world-class music," says Harvey. "And Gunther says listening to this kind of music will change your life." But no one should feel intimidated by the festival's marvelous, high-quality music, Harvey insists. "You don't have to be knowledgeable to know it and love it," she says with a laugh. "I'm a shining example of that. It's not for snobs."
Bach's music spanned the secular and the sacred, and, as in past years, the festival aims to reflect the diversity of works in the Bach catalog. The concert locations reflect that same breadth, with performances in churches, concert venues and schools.
Bach 2001 begins at the Westminster Congregational Church (411 S. Washington, Spokane) on Saturday evening with Gunther Schuller conducting the Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra in A Concert of Bach Cantatas and Bach's Suite in B minor. Verne Windham, Music Director for Spokane Public Radio, will give a pre-concert talk for this and each of the concerts in the Festival. Featured soloists Darnelle Preston, soprano, and mezzo-soprano Joanne Bouma will each perform one of Bach's many cantatas. Michael Faust, Solo Flutist with the Cologne Radio Symphony in his native Cologne, Germany, joins the orchestra along with harpsichordist Ilton Wjuniski for a performance of Bach's "Suite in B minor for Flute and Orchestra." Faust is just one of several internationally acclaimed performers who come to Spokane at Schuller's invitation.
"It's fair to say that the visiting artists come here because of their relationship with Gunther," Harvey points out. "He decides who he wants, and then we try to get on their schedules." Faust was able to fit Spokane into his North American tour this year, Harvey says, adding that the flutist has collaborated often with Wjuniski, the Brazilian-born harpsichordist who is a long-time friend of the Festival.
Both Faust and Wjuniski return to the stage for the Festival's second concert, A Musical Offering, at The Met on Sunday afternoon. Joining them will be violinist Kelly Farris and Margriet Tindemans on viola de gamba. Tindemans is a Seattle-based performer, director and teacher who specializes in early music, including medieval Spanish music and the compositions of German mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Farris is familiar to Spokane audiences thanks to his tenure as concertmaster with the Spokane Symphony and first violin with the Spokane String Quartet.
"The Festival has always been a collaboration between local and visiting artists," says Harvey. "That's part of the beauty of it. Each is thrilled to be collaborating with the others."
Several young local musicians will have the opportunity for collaboration on Sunday evening as the festival returns to the Westminster Congregational Church for its first-ever children's concert. Members of the Spokane Area Children's Chorus join with children from the Oregon Repertory Singers, for the premiere of the Northwest Bach Festival Children's Chorus, under the direction of special guest conductor, Dr. Doreen Rao of Toronto. An instrumental ensemble from the Spokane Youth Orchestra, directed by Verne Windham, will perform with the chorus.
Rao heads the Faculty of Music graduate program in conducting at the University of Toronto. She served previously as the music director and conductor of the Glen Ellyn Children's Chorus, whose recordings have won four Grammy Awards. With the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, she introduced a series of school concerts to bring young people and their families into the audience, and she developed the Choral Music Experience concept of music education through music performance.
"Doreen is absolutely at the top among children's chorus people," Harvey says. "Tamara [Schupman, director of the Spokane Area Children's Chorus] became involved with Choral Music Experience and became acquainted with Doreen and her work."
In his time, Bach contributed to the musical education of children, including his own 20 progeny. He wrote many pieces as keyboard exercises for his own children, and he surely influenced many more in his position as choral master at the church in Leipzig. The musical success of so many of his own children is certainly proof of his abilities as a music mentor to young people. The concert will feature one choral piece by Bach along with more contemporary works written especially for children's choirs.
"It's very exciting to have the children involved this year," Harvey says. "Some of Bach's pieces have parts specifically written for children's chorus. And although there are a lot of non-Bach pieces on this program, the music is from composers who are among best in children's music."
The concerts continue next weekend with an organ recital by James David Christie at St. Augustine Church on Saturday, Feb. 24. Christie, organist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has returned for many years to the festival and will perform several pieces by Bach and his predecessors on the organ, concluding with the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Joining Christie on several early chant pieces will be baritone Max Mendez, formerly with Opera Pacific in California, who now lives in Spokane and is part of the Chant Scola at Gonzaga University. No tickets are required for this free concert, and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. Donations will be accepted.
The grand finale to the festival will be a performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis for chorus and orchestra, to be held at the Cathedral of St. John on Sunday, Feb. 25. Beethoven was influenced by his predecessor, Bach, in the creation of his masterpieces, so his work is appropriate for the Bach Festival.
"We don't always do a big choral piece," says Harvey. "But last year, the chorus was so good [for Bach's Mass in B minor] that the focus was on trying to do another piece this year."
The Bach Festival Chorus, directed by Tamara Schupman, will once again join Gunther Schuller and the Festival Orchestra for the celebratory conclusion. Featured soloists this year are: Kendra Colton, soprano; Gloria Raymond, mezzo soprano; Rockland Osgood, tenor; Robert Honeysucker, baritone; and Kelly Farris, violin.
Between concerts, the festival's guest artists will hold a series of master classes, demonstrations, and other educational events on the Cheney campus of Eastern Washington University. Students from area high schools will be bused in for the events in cooperation with EWU.
"We're always interested in having free events as part of the festival," Harvey explains. "That's part of our outreach."
& & Bach Festival 2001 Schedule & & & &
& & "Bach Cantatas and Bach's Suite in B minor." & & With the Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra. Saturday, Feb. 17, 8 pm.Westminster Congregational Church, 411 S. Washington. Tickets: $16; $8 students.
"A Musical Offering, BWV 1079." Featuring Michael Faust, flute; Kelly Farris, violin; Margriet Tindemans, viola da gamba; and Ilton Wjuniski, harpsichord. Sunday, Feb. 18, 3 pm. The Met, 901 W. Sprague.Tickets: $16; $8 students.
& & "Children Celebrate Bach." & & Featuring the Northwest Bach Festival Children's Chorus with Special Guest Conductor, Dr. Doreen Rao, and children's choirs from Portland and Spokane with selected musicians of the Spokane Youth Orchestra. Sunday, Feb. 18, 7 pm.Westminster Congregational Church. Tickets: $16; $8 students.
& & "Bach Organ Recital -- A Musical Journey." & & Featuring James David Christie, organ. Saturday, Feb. 24, 2 pm. St. Augustine's Church, 428 W. 19th. Tickets: free.
& & "Beethoven's Missa Solemnis." & & With Gunther Schuller conducting the Bach Festival Orchestra and Chorus, Kelly Farris, violin, soprano to be announced, Gloria Raymond, mezzo soprano; Rockland Osgood, tenor; Robert Honeyscker, baritone; Tamara Schupman, Bach Chorus Director. Sunday, Feb. 25, 4 p.m.St. John's Cathedral, Grand Boulevard at 12th Ave. Tickets: $20; $10 students.
For all tickets, call: 325-SEAT.
The festival also offers a number of events that are free and open to the public:
Master class with Michael Faust, flute.Thursday, Feb. 15, 3:30 pm. Eastern Washington University, Campus Recital Hall.
Bach Festival guest conductor Doreen Rao conducts the EWU symphonic choir and percussion ensemble. Wednesday, Feb. 21, 9:30 am. EWU, Showalter Hall.
Master class with Doreen Rao.Wednesday, Feb. 21, 11 am. EWU, Showalter Hall.
Choir and vocal master class with Doreen Rao.Wednesday, Feb. 21, 1 pm. EWU, Music Building, Room 216.
Gunther Schuller, artistic director of the Bach Festival, presents a series of discussions. Friday, Feb. 23, 11 am. EWU, Recital Hall.
Free organ recital concert with James David Christie. Saturday, Feb. 24, 2 p.m.St. Augustine's Church, 428 W. 19th in Spokane.