He's Baaach. Perhaps not my best pun, but Johann Sebastian, never far from our hearts and always in the repertoire, has been a subject of special celebration since 2005, when the Montreal Bach Academy established the Montreal Bach Festival, an event mating our prodigious local cohort of Bach-minded talent with distinguished visitors from abroad.
The 2010 edition opens next Friday with the sombre St. John Passion as performed by two redoubtable Montreal organizations, Arion and les Voix Baroques, at Saint-Viateur Church. Directed from the organ by the Montreal-based German conductor-keyboardist Alex Weimann, this will be an orthodox baroque presentation, with Jan Kobow, a German tenor of historically informed upbringing, in the starring role as the Evangelist.
Then things get really scholarly and serious on Nov. 28 with the Red Bull Flying Bach troupe, break dancing to the Well-Tempered Clavier in St. James United Church.
"Of course the target group for this are not the Bach purists," Alexandra Scheibler, the German-born founding artistic director of the MBF, wrote me the other day, pointing out that the Leipzig Bach Festival has also engaged this Berlinbased company.
"We are hoping also to see a lot of young people and kids, to try to get this age group exposed and interested in J.S. Bach and help this music to make it to the next generations. The schools don't seem to do the job."
There is much to savour between the extremes, although most of the music-making situates itself at the period-practice end of things.
Daniel Taylor's Theatre of Early Music (Nov. 28) and Peter Schubert's choir Viva Voce (Nov. 30) each perform cantatas, most selected from the hit parade. Christopher Jackson and the Studio de musique ancienne de Montreal, often heard a cappella, will give us the Motets with continuo backup on Dec. 5.
My attempts to work up a lather on continuo-or-no-continuo performance issues were futile. "I tend to be much more drawn to questions relating to musical rhetoric, Lutheran theology, etc.," Jackson writes.
As are we all.
There are some lighter choral presentations. Michael Zaugg and the St. Lawrence Choir (Nov. 28) presents an afternoon singalong Christmas program including four chorales from the Christmas Oratorio and music by Buxtehude, Praetorius and Mendelssohn, plus traditional carols.
"I pick music with well-known melodies, so if there are singers who can't read music, they will be able to sing along with the melody," Zaugg explains. "Having done events like this for close to 20 years -it's a very known form of musical activity in Switzerland, and Europe in general -I am aware that the main idea of the event is to socialize through singing and to learn some new music, but not in order to perform it."
The conductor will also present David Lang's Pulitzer Prize-winning Little Match Girl Passion late on Dec. 4, a setting of the Hans Christian Andersen with music by Bach, Schutz and others.
One obvious vocal highlight, on Dec. 2, is an appearance by the American counter-tenor David Daniels with The English Concert, a London-based ensemble that promotes itself as Europe's Leading Baroque Orchestra. The program is vocal and instrumental. Three Handel arias supplement the diet of Bach.
Daniels is one of three high-flyers in a solo role, others being Taylor and Matthew White, who does alto duties in the St. John Passion.
"In my view, it depends on the piece whether to prefer a male or female voice," Scheibler says. "For my taste, I very much like the male (alto) voices for the Passions. But, for example, in the B Minor Mass I do prefer the female voice."
Jackson's view on Bach countertenors? "Bach's choir in Leipzig was made up of boys and probably adolescents singing alto, certainly no ladies in sight. I don't think the altos in his choir resembled our counter-tenors -probably just boys with lower voices."
Instrumental music has not been forgotten. The famously Bachfriendly organ of Immaculate Conception Church will be matched with the Italian organist Fabio Bonizzoni on Dec. 1. The celebrated Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is on the program. There is an afternoon airing of "future stars" on the organ of Christ Church Cathedral on Dec. 1.
Welsh harpist Catrin French performs her transcription of the Goldberg Variations on Dec. 3 and the Canadian-born French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras traverses the solo Suites as a festival-closer on Dec. 8.
Boris Brott leads the McGill Chamber Orchestra on Dec. 4 in a program of concerts. Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan, past and present MSO concertmasters, team up in the famous Concerto for Two Violins.
Matthias Maute and his Ensemble Caprice try to evoke a day at the Bach home on Dec. 1. Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach, grandson to the great J.S., will contribute some music to this program. P.D.Q. was not available.
For spoken insights to the life of Bach, try Christoff Wolff, of Harvard and the Bach Archive in Leipzig, talking on the latest discoveries on Dec. 6.
Is that all? Let me see. ... Oh yes, there is some outfit called the MSO under a certain Kent Nagano. They will not be performing Bach on Dec. 6 and 7 in Place des Arts. But the Canadian piano phenom Jan Lisiecki will appear in this program of Bruckner and Brahms, playing Bach chorale preludes.
Then the city can get Bach to normal.
The Montreal Bach Festival runs from this Friday to Dec. 8. Go to www.festivalbachmontreal.com.
Montreal Symphony Orchestra review, Page E12
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