Bach and Beyond: Boulder Bach’s Spring “Festival Week”
Johann Sebastian Bach: the music and the name are timeless, like a Gibraltar of great music. Beethoven has myriad admirers, as does Mozart. However, both masters studied JS Bach’s works, as have countless others since Bach’s time. The man set such an unsurpassed standard of excellence that one hardly needs to specify which of many “Bachs” one means. Sebastian may be the ultimate master composer.
As it happens, in the Denver area music community, Bach also means Boulder, as in the venerable Boulder Bach Festival. Celebrating its 41st season this year, the Boulder Bach Festival began in anticipation of the 1985 tricentennial of JS Bach’s birth. In the years since that time, it has never run out of material, nor of ways to perceive and present that material. It is one thing to perform, listen, and enjoy: it is another to go several steps further, making the festival an even fuller, richer experience. More about those ‘steps’ shortly, but let us bring the music itself first to the spotlight.
For this year’s Festival Week, festival co-directors Mina Gajić and Zachary Carrettin have curated a set of four performances centered on JS Bach’s own music, but presenting it in a broader context: Bach’s own generation, that which came before, and those that came after. Carrettin observes, “It is clear that our service to the community requires ‘navigating the waters of music history,’ often with Bach as our compass—but not always!”
The series opens with Contemporaneous Concertos the evening of Thursday, May 12, 7:30 pm (1128 Pine Street, Boulder). JS Bach’s ever-famed ‘Double’ Concerto for two violins and orchestra is the featured work, matched with his harpsichord Concerto in d minor ( Mina Gajić, soloist), and works by three of his contemporaries: Händel, Corelli, and Telemann, so one can listen for how these four gentlemen brought personal approaches to the concerto genre. Song-like or clockwork-like: it’s all there! The Telemann Flute Concerto with Ysmael Reyes, flautist, may be of particular interest on May 12: its manuscript only recently came to light and this will be the Colorado premiere.
The following evening, Friday, May 13, 7:30 pm, the focus zooms in for smaller scale works. This Voices of the Chamber program offers sonatas by JS Bach, Legrenzi, Castello, and Isabella Leonarda. BBF festival co-director and violinist Zachary Carrettin observes, “I like to delve into WHO each composer was, and how their experiences and attitudes shaped their artwork.” Also on the program will be another Bach, Johann Christoph, cousin to JS Bach’s father, thus first cousin once removed to JSB, not to be confused with JSB’s own son, Johann Christian. The elder JC Bach was described by JSB as “the profound Bach.” JC Bach’s soulful Lamento highlights mezzo-soprano Claire McCahan. One might perceive that profundity in what Carrettin describes as “a remarkable economy of tools – utter perfection using only one brush, one color, and a small canvas.”
Saturday’s 4 pm matinee on May 14, Next Generations, is a look forward with composers from the Romantic Era. Wolfgang Mozart, Clara Schumann, and Lili Boulanger were all familiar with JS Bach’s music; Mozart studied the master’s keyboard writing quite closely. Thus, in their works, one hears what later composers made of the master’s techniques and how they caused them to evolve. Keyboard fans will likely find this program to be particularly intriguing. A 19th century Érard concert grand piano, owned and generously shared by BBF co-director Mina Gajić, will give listeners first-hand experience in how the instruments of the premiere French piano maker of this generation allowed both rapid action and expressive colors. Mozart’s Piano Quartet in g minor, K.478 will be featured on May 14, with Yu-Eun Kim, Violin; Paul Miller, Viola; and Coleman Itzkoff, Cello joining Gajić.
The final concert of Festival Week with the Boulder Bach Festival will be a 4 pm matinee on Sunday, May 15: all Bach, but not all Johann Sebastian Bach. Johann Christoph Bach will be back, allowing further comparison to his younger relative. The Intimacy of J. S. Bach (another matinee offering) will feature JSB’s Cello Suite in c minor and his Orchestral Suite in b minor, along with an early cantata and a vocal motet by Johann Christoph. Some works on the program are utterly solo: hence “Intimacy.” However, larger forces also come into play, particularly for the dance-imbued Orchestral Suite BWV 1067. Taken together, the program should bring home to audiences the impressive range of musical colors that arise in Baroque music – especially when there’s at least one Bach along for the ride!
When it comes to JS Bach and his like, one cannot quite say that it is “just music.” Admittedly, the music itself is reason enough for celebration. However, at the Boulder Bach Festival, there has long been ‘more’ than listening to remarkable music remarkably performed. For those with time and interest to delve in more deeply, there are master classes, lectures, exhibits, and artist meet-and-greet events. BBF co-director Mina Gajic describes this as a “holistic approach to programming” that offers audiences “an insight into the world shared by the musicians on stage.” Getting behind the notes on the page allows what Gajic views as a “deeply personal, enriching internal experience.” So those wishing to explore further should look into the numerous BBF events other than ‘just’ performances.
This year’s Festival Week with the Boulder Bach Festival runs from Thursday, May 12, through Sunday, May 15. Concerts on Thursday and Friday begin at 7:30 pm; those on Saturday and Sunday are 4pm matinees. All four programs will be presented at Boulder’s First Congregational Church, 1128 Pine Street, north of Pearl Street and just west of Broadway. Further information and ticket purchase links can be found here:
The detail-oriented will have noted that the link says ‘subscriptions.’” Nonetheless, at that link, one can select specific concerts, or even the full series, including lectures and other activities. For example, Paul Miller will give a series of lectures on all the Festival programs.
Festival co-director Zachary Carrettin observes that, in recent years, the BBF has expanded its programming and, in his words, “exponentially increased audience.” Admittedly, pandemic-inspired internet offerings on YouTube have played a role. However, that international artists come all the way to Boulder to work with the festival has also contributed to audience fervor. Carrettin notes that, in the case of the BBF, bigger is part of being better: “The more we expand the vision, the offerings, the topics and styles, the instruments and vocal repertoire, the more audiences respond.”
JS Bach has long drawn diverse admirers, from Mozart and Brahms to Jane Goodall and Albert Einstein, Thelonius Monk and Eddie Van Halen. Any creator whose artistry has drawn such divergent fans merits the attention he is given each spring in Boulder. For this 41st edition of the Boulder Bach Festival, making space in one’s calendar is likely to be rewarded ten-fold.