Only a mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging, classic rock-listening troglodyte would dismiss the works of Johann Sebastian Bach as "highbrow crap by some dead white guy." And yet, sometimes it's easy to think of Bach -- who appears in his portraits bewigged, stolid and often wearing a severely Germanic expression -- as somehow irrelevant to our busy 21st-century lives. But Bach's music is perennial, and has things to offer even those whose feet are firmly rooted in the here and now.
"The only music I'm interested in right now is either 20th century or Baroque. It's those two poles that pull me in," says Kendall Feeney, founder and former artistic director of Zephyr. "Bach is the ultimate -- ultimate -- composer. As a craftsman, as an artist... there's everything in his music."
When asked to explain, Feeney points to Bach's considerable musical range and depth.
"If you could sit next to me at the piano, I'd open The Well-Tempered Clavier, and when I play it, you'd hear that none of it sounds the same. Some of it's romantic, some is 'mathematical,' but there's also dissonance and angst and suffering," she says. "Bach is 'Desert Island' stuff for me. It's essential."
This year's Bach Festival opens on Friday with the perfect introduction to any celebration of Bach and his music -- a free concert devoted to Bach's works for the organ. James David Christie returns to the Inland Northwest -- as he does almost every year -- to command the fine set of pipes up at St. Augustine's Church in a program that includes the Prelude and Fugue in c minor, BMV 549, and the Trio Sonata in G Major, after BWV 525, for flute and organ, performed on the postif organ with Germany's Michael Faust on flute.
The camellia pink walls, gilt woodwork and crystal chandeliers of the Davenport Hotel's Marie Antoinette Room provide a proper setting for not one but two Bach Festival concerts. "Bach's Clear Voice," on Sunday, showcases solo instrumentalists Kelly Farris, Cheryl Carney, Ilton Wjuniski and Faust. Composed of Bach selections for violin, cello, flute and harpsichord, "Bach's Clear Voice" is not only a chance to welcome back Bach Festival favorites such as Faust and Wjuniski (who leaves his home in Paris to take part in the Bach Festival); it's also, as festival spokeswoman Gertrude Harvey points out, a fresh opportunity to hear Bach interpreted by some of our local musicians.
"It's always wonderful to hear Kelly Farris play, and Cheryl Carney is a superb cellist who you just don't get to hear solo. So it's nice to be able to shine the spotlight on her."
Also worth noting is the fact that this concert is perhaps the chichiest of the bunch, with a ticket price of $30-$35 and a delicious panoply of wine and cheese at intermission. Artistic Director Gunther Schuller will open the event with a pre-concert talk at 2:30 pm.
The second Marie Antoinette Room concert is "Music as Domestic Tranquility," on Tuesday, which is almost an in-joke for Bach aficionados.
"The whole family was musical, and of course Bach's sons were composers," says Harvey. "And to be honest, with that many children, I don't think there was any domestic tranquility in that house."
Schuller precedes the program with a talk at 7 pm, and the musical menu includes selections by J.S. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, W.F. Bach and J. Christian Bach, played by Michael Faust, flute; Tracy Dunlop, violin; Nicholas Carper, viola; Helen Byrne, cello; Keith Thomas, oboe; and Ilton Wjuniski, harpsichord. Nothing preserves family happiness like "sweets," which will be served alongside coffee at intermission.
"Music as Foreign Policy" is a program comprised of music by Bach's sons J. Christian Bach and C.P.E. Bach, as well as international composers Bach admired, including Tomaso Albinoni, Pietro Locatelli and Francois Couperin. As with the "Music as Domestic Tranquility" concert, Gunther Schuller will present a pre-concert talk at 7 pm. The Feb. 6 program also includes the Sonata No. 18 in A Major, written by Frederick the Great, who was himself a composer and also a frequent employer of the senior Bach.
For the first time in Bach Festival history, Gunther Schuller returns to conduct the Bach Festival Orchestra and Chorus in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. The Feb. 7 event takes place at First Presbyterian Church and includes two cantatas, the Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major; BWV 1069 and C.P.E.'s Concerto in d minor for flute, strings and harpsichord featuring flautist Michael Faust. KPBX's Verne Windham will be on hand for a pre-concert talk at 7 pm prior to the 7:30 performance.
And finally, on Feb. 8, "Anna Magdalena's Notebook" offers both a sampling from one of Bach's most beloved works and a look at the great composer's home life. His second wife, Anna Magdalena, was herself a musician, and the notebooks are what remain of two volumes compiled in the Bach household for her enjoyment and for the teaching of her musical progeny. Ilton Wjuniski, harpsichord, and Fritz Robertson, tenor, are the featured musicians for this free concert at the newest Bach Festival venue, Mary Queen Catholic Church.
"This is the first time for us to have a concert up north," says Harvey. "Mary Queen Catholic Church is in Hillyard, which is kind of nice in terms of our outreach goals."
In fact, if this festival had an unofficial theme, it would be that Bach is indeed for everyone. As always, festival planners are offering half-price student tickets to each event, and the festival is bookended by two free concerts. Perhaps most important, however, is the underlying sense that while Bach's music is some of the most masterful ever written, its appeal to common folks is undeniable.
"Now there is music," Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is reported to have said of Bach, "from which a man can learn something."
The 26th Annual Bach Festival takes place Jan. 30-Feb. 8
A Week of Bach --
* "The Splendours of Bach and the Organ" - Friday, Jan. 30 at 8 p.m. at St. Augustine's Church, 428 W. 19th. Free.
* "Bach's Clear Voice" - Sunday, Feb. 1 at 3 p.m. at the Marie Antoinette Room, Davenport Hotel, 10 S. Post. Tickets: $30 general admission; $35 reserved table; $15 students. Pre-Concert Talk with Gunther Schuller at 2:30 p.m.
* "Music as Domestic Tranquility" - Tuesday, Feb. 3 at 7:30 p.m. at the Marie Antoinette Room, Davenport Hotel, 10 S. Post. Tickets: $20, general admission; $25, reserved table; students: $10. Pre-Concert Talk with Gunther Schuller at 7 p.m.
* "Music as Foreign Policy" - Friday, Feb. 6 at 8 p.m. at the Met, 901 W. Sprague. Tickets: $20, general admission; students, $10. Pre-Concert Talk with Gunther Schuller at 7:30 p.m.
* "Brandenburg No. 4" - Saturday, Feb. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 318 S. Cedar. Tickets: $20; $10 students. Pre-Concert Talk with Verne Windham at 7 pm.
* "Anna Magdalena's Notebook" - Sunday, Feb. 8 at 3 p.m. at Mary Queen Catholic Church, 3423 E. Carlisle. Free.