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Bach for the 21st Century

A rock music writer ponders time, art, relevance and Johann Sebastian Bach at the Oregon Bach Festival
Lars Ulrik Mortensen conducts from the keyboard as the Oregon Bach Festival orchestra and chorus perform Handel’s Hercules.
Lars Ulrik Mortensen conducts from the keyboard as the Oregon Bach Festival orchestra and chorus perform Handel’s Hercules. Photo by Athena Delene

By 1829, nearly 80 years after his death, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach had fallen out of fashion. Think of what we were listening to 80 years ago: Bing Crosby, Count Basie and Benny Goodman. (And yes, someday your music will feel tired to your children’s children. Deal with it. It’s entropy. You’re programmed for irrelevance.)

Europe of the early 19th century was an emotive time: a Romantic age in literature and in music. In America, Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson looked beyond past masters like Bach, believing in self-reliance above all else. It sounded passé to the younger generation, standing on the cusp of the Victorian era, the cusp of Empire, Manifest Destiny, industrialization and the kind of more-means-more capitalism that made Karl Marx a Marxist. 

In 1829, conductor and composer Felix Mendelssohn was just 20 years old and, as often described by scholars, a “hot-headed” kid. The brash youngster was committed to reviving Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Mendelssohn was told it would never work, he was crazy, people would never sit through so much Bach.

It’s cold comfort to know that, even then, concert promoters were concerned about the attention span of audiences.

However, Mendelssohn’s St. Matthew Passion was wildly successful. He performed it again in 1841, and scholars see this as the beginning of the Baroque revival we know today: a direct line to Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene, Oregon, nearly two centuries later.

I’m a 40-something rock music writer in Eugene, not a Bach expert. That’s why Eugene Weekly asked me to go to three concerts at this year’s Oregon Bach Festival and write about what I heard. Does J.S. Bach still have a pulse for non-specialists in 2017?

 

Back to Basics

I’m thinking of Mendelssohn as I prepare to take in OBF’s St. Matthew Passion at University of Oregon’s Beall Hall, the opening performance of the 2017 season. To me, Mendelssohn is a Bob Dylan figure, one who in his time made “older music” — country blues and folk — relevant to younger generations: incendiary for its traditionalism and goosed-up with an edge of brash and youthful irreverence.

The story of Mendelssohn’s St. Matthew Passion seemed not entirely unlike Dylan plugging in at Newport. This parallel piqued my brain, raised on rock ’n’ roll. 

OBF, like many other classical festivals and ensembles around the world, has a renewed interest in what Baroque music sounded like before Mendelssohn’s generation got its hands on it.

The new Bach fest wants to perform Bach and other Baroque composers’ works on authentic instruments: wooden flutes, for example, and harpsichords instead of pianos, gut-string violins as opposed to steel or nylon strings — instruments meant for churches and other smaller spaces.

Just as Mendelssohn hoped to make Bach relevant to his generation, OBF hopes to make the Baroque relevant to audiences now. 

But unlike how some current productions of Shakespeare — another artist whose vision is shaded for us by the values of the Victorians — aim to broaden Shakespeare by bringing forward modern themes of gender, race and sexual orientation, OBF hopes to revitalize Bach in reverse, stripping back time to get at the heart of Bach’s music and the age in which he wrote.

In other words, at OBF ’17 you won’t hear a rapper or sampled beats. (That’s been tried before here, with mixed results.)

I asked OBF Executive Director Janelle McCoy: “What exactly about traditional music of the early 18th century resonates with now?” The answer, she says, begins with rock shows … sort of.

“You’ll hear the instruments that would’ve been used around that time,” McCoy explains, adding that they produce a sound closer to what Bach heard in his head at the time of the writing. “A little more mellow,” she says. “The modern instruments, they’re brighter. You’ll find when you’re hearing it in period you’ll hear inner voicings that you’ve never heard before.”

Most modern music fans, like me, are used to an immediacy in what they hear — the closeness between audience and performer at a club. This was also true in Bach’s time, before the age of the grand concert hall, and it’s this connection OBF hopes to recreate. 

I’m a Bach beginner. My father has credits toward a Ph.D. in classical music from UO. He told me when I was a teen that there wasn’t much music outside of Bach worth listening to: Bach wrote it all first. Naturally I rejected that notion.

I was raised with a baseline familiarity with classical, but felt most at home at record stores and at rock shows with all their attendant misfits and reprobates. I was glad to hear McCoy say OBF hoped to reinject some of this heat back into the Baroque equation.

Here’s McCoy: “Classical music started in people’s living rooms and salons. That’s why they call it chamber music; the word ‘chamber,’ from the French ‘chambre,’ means bedroom. There is this spirit in classical music that is much more populist. This is a way of paying homage to that chamber experience.”

John Blow’s Venus and Adonis at OBF. Photo by Athena Delene

 

St. Matthew Passion

The St. Matthew Passion tells the story of events leading to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is thought to have been first performed on Good Friday sometime between 1727 and 1729 at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach served as musical director of the resident boys’ choir.

Besides what we know about the instruments it was performed on, what do we know about how St. Matthew Passion sounded? The answer is: not much. But we can speculate that it was solemn. St. Matthew Passion is, after all, a timeless ode to suffering — visceral suffering, blood, nails, persecution — as means of salvation. Fun stuff.

Bach’s audiences were poor and faithful, so hungry for a sermon it’s thought they sometimes attended several services in one day. OBF’s real masterstroke in recreating this atmosphere was staging St. Matthew Passion at Beall Hall, built in 1921 and itself a church-like venue, with a towering pipe organ.

But there was an elephant in the room, and that elephant was an empty Hult Center in downtown Eugene, a facility built in part to house the Oregon Bach Festival. OBF hasn’t completely abandoned the Hult, but premiering the season at the smaller Beall Hall (520 seats, compared to 2,450 in the Hult’s Silva Hall) brought to mind news reports of declining ticket sales and eroding audiences, whether period-style calls for a smaller venue or not.

OBF’s performance also featured a last-minute conductor change, as artistic director Matthew Halls was called away for his first child’s birth in Toronto. I understand some audience members were ruffled by this, but I’m not sure I’m versed enough to know the effect a conductor change can have on a classical performance. 

Overall, the audience, like most audiences at classical music these days, was, shall we say — seasoned — with a median age well above that of the performers. This, of course, doesn’t matter, except as a sign that classical music fans are aging at a rate incongruous with the age range of those interested in mastering its performance — a conundrum that will need to be solved to keep such performances financially viable.

As mentioned earlier, the period instruments are softer, woody, their tones more rounded, folksy — and I wondered if there was a different direction for performers to move than one might expect from classical ensembles. From their chairs and in standing positions, they flowed as if the music was a tide and they were reeds underwater.

Our holy music stomps like gospel, and while St. Matthew is far from fevered, this physicality added a sense that faith, at best, should be a full-body experience. You could see Peter Harvey (baritone, Jesus) and Charles Daniels (tenor, Evangelist) prep like boxers in their corners, and the wind instrumentalists occasionally lick their lips, eyebrows raised after a particularly difficult phrase in a “whew, that was a close one” expression.

Other performers included soprano Sophie Junker. I loved the intimacy, but could care less about the religion. And while the supporting cast of soloists was overall strong, the proximity brought an audible “wow” from my lips when countertenor Reginald Mobley, a big, solid human being, took to the stage only to emit the most heavenly alto.

And in the end, this is heavenly music, dense to our modern ears but nonetheless a marvel — each musical phrasing a complete sentence, each sentence a new idea. And it all came from within the head of one person who with his music tried to pay tribute to heaven but in doing so created a kind of heaven on earth.

 

Berwick Academy: ‘Explore German Baroque with Monica Huggett’

Not all Baroque is heavy, and Explore German Baroque, also at Beall Hall, was a light affair next to the Passion. Meant as an overview of German Baroque composers from Bach’s era, the program included Telemann, Fasch, Graun and Bach’s own son Wilhelm Friedemann.

In a timeless story of son rejecting the father, Friedemann chafed at the Baroque’s religious diktat. Reading the program notes, this cost him several jobs, proving that even in the 18th century musicians were hard to employ — rock ’n’ roll will never die.

Central to Explore German Baroque was the appearance of British conductor and leading Baroque violinist Monica Huggett, artistic director of Portland Baroque Orchestra and an OBF regular. Before the show she apologized for the long program, explaining with a smile if anyone had to get up and leave, she understood.

“We won’t be offended,” she said, before launching into a concert of adagios, fugues, concertos and suites tending toward the lighter side of Baroque. The ensembles — no, I’ll call them “bands” — stood on stage as they might’ve in a salon, cheated toward one another instead of the audience, with Huggett “leading” but not exactly conducting — occasionally swinging an arm here or there for emphasis, not so much to guide the musicians as to express her physical involvement with the work: less a conductor, more a rock band’s front-person, providing visual flourish to the sound. 

A good front-person has long been my favorite part of the rock band moment, and I liked seeing that thread emphasized in this performance — a time-travel link to the audiences that took in this work in their own era. 

And the net effect recalled to my mind little legacies of Baroque I feel can be heard in pop music from The Beatles or in general the style known sometimes as “Baroque pop.” It’s my favorite sound — the dazzling mathematical yet musically intricate nature of Baroque thinking made clearer in the smaller ensembles: babbling brooks instead of roaring oceans. 

OBF artistic director Matthew Halls rehearses an ensemble. Photo by Athena Delene.

 

[Re]Discovery Series, Part I: St. John Passion

Can I mention that, after catching part one of the [Re]Discovery Series, I have a little man-crush on OBF artistic director Matthew Halls? Oh, the British accent, oh the egghead musical terminology in an Italian accent, oh the sport coat.

But more on that later.

Bach wrote five passions. Only two survive in completion: St. Matthew and St. John. OBF’s [Re]Discovery Series broke down St. John into digestible nuggets, with Halls offering a little lecture on musical points that give the passion its genius. I caught only Part I, which also featured guest conductors from OBF’s conducting master class.

Halls made it back from his familial obligations to lead this performance and lecture. And man, is he an engaging and informative speaker (as I make a little heart-shape with my fingers across my chest). Halls points out that Lent was a time of fasting, and Bach intended his Passions to be auditory feasts for the parishioners.

Beall Hall’s pipe organ was played athletically and impressively by Daniel Ficarri. Something we get wrong, Halls points out, is that Bach’s audiences were greeted by music from the instant they entered their church.

Truthfully, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the structure: Quit talking about the wine and just let me drink it!

Halls spoke of how, as opposed to St. Matthew’s violence, St. John is about beauty and divinity as a path to salvation. Halls highlighted the heartbeat-like underpinnings of St. John, and how Bach harmonized lines with unstable chords, and the little mathematical tricks up Bach’s sleeve (like St. John’s intro literally “counting down” in the bars of its musical phrasing). Very clever, Bach. Very clever. 

But once the talking was done with (I ended up a little sad to see Halls go), these factoids did add a richness to the work I might’ve missed. In the end I enjoyed at least the first part of St. John Passion more than St. Matthew, if for no other reason than it afforded another chance to hear Reginald Mobley sing. Its effect was gentler, Bach’s genius cleaner, the religion less heavy-handed, the ideas more universal beyond the mind of an 18th-century Lutheran. I loved it.

 

The Morning After

“Does any Bach music have drums?”

My 8-year-old daughter wanted a full report after I’d heard the last of the three OBF performances.

“I don’t think so,” I replied. Her face crumpled incredulously.

“But that’s the best part of music,” she said. And I agreed.

Did I leave any these shows feeling like these towering works were revitalized in the same way (and I know it’s an apples-and-oranges comparison) that I’ve seen Hamlet made startlingly clear to my 21st-century sensibilities?

No, I didn’t. Maybe it’s the heavy religious imagery. Maybe our modern ears do want Mendelssohn’s action-adventure-style Passion. How will Bach sound to my daughter, to my children’s children, for perpetuity?

I like the move toward period-authentic performance. I do feel it put me in touch with these composers and musicians as warm-blooded creative creatures. But if the Bach fest is truly concerned with reinvention, I’d encourage them to get even closer to the spirit of Bach as an artist, and how that side of human nature continues to this day.

Looking at history maybe OBF needs a little less Johann Sebastian and a little more Wilhelm Friedemann.

Perhaps the festival could truly decentralize across the city to all the nooks and crannies where music flourishes in Eugene. A festival of Eugene bands and jazz combos held at Hi-Fi or Jazz Station, or chamber music actually played in Eugene residents’ living rooms? 

Bach was an educator, so how about songwriting workshops open to all ages and styles? Or an investment in a mainstream headliner for the Hult Center that carries on the legacy of musical exploration while driving audiences to buy tickets. How about Radiohead or Brian Eno? Why should we be afraid to think big in Eugene?

The Goldberg Variations with a rapper may seem as desperate as your dad saying “dude,” but considering who now is writing our great works, and opening up the canon to pop — and all its attendant and more diverse voices (read: less old dead white men) — may just be the answer. Bach’s music is timelessly beautiful. But maybe it’s time to bury Bach the Lutheran.

Or maybe we shouldn’t care if Bach stays relevant. Is it the responsibility of great art to speak to audiences as they shift and change, or is it the responsibility of audiences to keep alive these monuments to our Western world? Will we someday listen to Revolver, The Queen is Dead or Nevermind the way we listen to Bach?

I don’t know. All that being said, I did leave these performances pondering the importance of any work of music, from any time, telegraphing a conversation between composer and audience, as well as between musician and music. Art links us in our humanity, across geography, beyond boundaries and through time. That was no different in 1700.

And in this regard, OBF 2017 was a success. 

The Oregon Bach Festival continues through Saturday, July 15. Remaining performances include Telemann’s Don Quixote at 7 pm Thursday, July 13; The On Ensemble (taiko drummers) Friday, July 14; and the concluding concert, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Saturday, July 15. More information at OregonBachFestival.com.