by Sheri Boggs

Bach can stop you dead in your tracks. Sure, you might be thinking the Brandenburg Concertos would make nice background music, something to listen to while you work or maybe drive to the grocery store. While the concertos are melodic, however, they don't tolerate passive listening for long. When you least expect it, a tendril of the music reaches up and grabs you by the wrist. There's an undeniable grace in the movement, and yet you can't help but to stop what you're doing and really listen.

"The whole point of the Bach Festival is the profoundness of Bach," says Verne Windham, who will be presenting pre-concert talks half an hour before each concert of the festival. "We want to play Bach because it's beautiful music, but also because it reminds us how deeply important Bach is."

The importance of Johann Sebastian Bach has never been lost on Spokane thanks to the efforts of Connoisseur Concerts, which has ensured that the Inland Northwest has received its midwinter dose of Bach each of the past 24 years.

"We don't hear a lot of Bach in this part of the country. That's why the festival is sort of a mission for us, to let people know about Bach and show that his music is for everyone; it isn't over anyone's head," says Gertrude Harvey of Connoisseur Concerts.

Part of the reason for a relative scarcity of this 18th-century composer throughout the rest of the year has to do with the fact that while Bach is easy on the ears, he's not so easy on the hands.

"There's a reason he's considered the world's greatest composer," says Harvey. "But by the same token, his music is not easy to play. There's a bit of a learning curve for most of the Bach Festival musicians."

Facilitating the translation is the Festival Artistic Director Gunther Schuller, whose experience with not only Bach but also with his own work as a musician, composer and conductor enhances the entire festival.

"Bach can be really dense. He was so busy looking for the ideal, and he was able to combine a lot of really different musical elements together. His ability to do that sometimes exceeds our ability to hear it in order to play it," Windham explains. "That's the good thing about Gunther conducting; he's really adept at bringing out the texture of Bach and underscoring the important things that come up."

This year's event might seem scaled back in preparation for next year, the 25th anniversary of the Bach Festival. There are fewer guest artists and a more Bach-centered schedule. Not that this year's festival is by any means playing in a minor key. The festival opens with a stunning program that includes the Sanctus in D, Cantata 82, Ich habe genug and the magnificent Magnificat in D.

"The Magnificat in D is a beautiful piece, which many people will find familiar," says Windham. "What's also interesting is that there's a lot of activity packed into a little amount of time. It's a little less than half an hour long and yet it has all the best parts of an entire mass." The Magnificat is also noteworthy for bringing some familiar names back to town. In addition to Bach Festival favorites Randel Wagner, Jo Anne Bouma and Darnelle Preston, soprano Tamara Schupman, who left Spokane for Chicago last year, returns as a soloist. Especially exciting this year is the debut of a new Bach Festival tenor, 19-year-old Jadd Davis, who sang a tenor aria in the EWU choir's Magnificat last year.

The second program of the Bach Festival, "Bach and the Music of Spain and Portugal," features the unique perspective of returning artist Ilton Wjuniski. "When you think of music of the Iberian peninsula, it seems a little obscure, but this is really Ilton's area of expertise. He's quite familiar with the composers he'll be playing," says Harvey. For a time it seemed that Wjuniski, who lives in Paris, might not be able to keep his annual midwinter gig in the Inland Northwest. Harvey says that in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the procedures for getting Wjuniski here became much more stringent and time-sensitive than in years past. "It just goes to show that it's touched everything, things you wouldn't even think of," she says. "We're just really relieved that he'll be able to take part this year."

The popular first and third Brandenburg Concertos, as well as Telemann's Overture in F are the third offering of the series, and while the Brandenburgs will no doubt be big crowd-pleasers, the lesser-known Telemann piece is a special favorite of Schuller's.

"It's a lot of fun for two big reasons. It's a big rowdy lusty piece for the French horn, which of course is exciting for Gunther, so it will be a great romp for us," says Windham. "This piece is a real touchstone as 'people's music' as well. This piece tells a story. It was commissioned for the city of Hamburg, and it has a lot of extra musical sounds: cannons, birdsongs and all the sounds of the hunt."

The Bach Festival closes with a free concert at St. Augustine's Church, "Bach and His French Rivals." Featuring James David Christie on the organ, the program includes works by Bach, Louis Marchand, Nicolas deGrigny, Dieterich Buxtehude and Girolamo Frescobaldi (with tenor Thom Barthelmess). In addition to presenting music by a few of Bach's contemporaries, this concert also highlights the variety of works for the organ in this period, providing a fitting and graceful finale to the series as well as a prelude for next year.

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