Johann Sebastian in Bardo

EMV's BachFest places the Master in musical context

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It’s been an eye-opener, Schenkman reports, how an overt faith-marker subtly colours people’s reactions. But beyond its public, interpersonal implications, he’s noticed, the skullcap has gradually taken on more and more private, internal meaning for him. “It’s a reminder that 'this too shall pass,' that there’s an over-riding Something beyond all the noise of these times.”

A sense of religious transcendence in turbulent times also infuses tonight's Christ Church concert, the penultimate BachFest program before tomorrow’s grand finale at UBC’s Chan Centre. Titled “Missions and Mysteries,” the Thursday, August 10th, programme features baroque music from Bach’s predecessors and contemporaries in the Iberian empire of Latin America.

Don't think of these New World venues, though, as remote backwaters or outer suburbs of the baroque, warns keyboardist Henry Lebedinsky of Seattle’s Pacific Music Works, who assembled tonight's programme. “Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, Peru – these places were fabulously rich with new-found mineral wealth.”

And where there’s a lot of nouveaux riche money, there’s bound to be a flourishing arts scene, with gala venues and patronage. In baroque Latin America, the arts hubs would be mostly focused around the amply endowed city cathedrals.

Then, too, there was another type of conversion underway: a "mission civilisatrice" to shock and awe a vast indigenous population with the majesty and emotive force of Western – especially Christian – music. And it wasn't long, Lebedinsky notes, before Latin America cultivated its own cadre of indigenously born "Western" performers and composers, several of whom feature on tonight’s bill.

Nor was the artistic transmission all a one-way street, he adds. African and indigenous strains found their way from Latin America back into the Western repertoire in Europe.

“Where do you think all of Bach’s sensuous sarabandes and rollicking chaconnes came from?” First introduced in Latin America, such dance forms migrated back to Europe to be “gentrified,” Lebedinsky submits. And Vancouverites tonightcan look forward to hearing them in their more “flavourful, hip-shaking, foot-stomping” original versions, he promises.

Not that European music itself was exactly emotionally sterile even 100 years before Bach's time. One of the most striking concerts on the Festival roster was a five-voice choral ensemble’s rendering of “The Fountains of Israel,” a cycle of biblical texts by Johann Schein, Bach’s lineal predecessor a century earlier as Cantor of the Saint Thomas Church in Leipzig.

The texts are scored in Italian madrigal style, but with German libretti – a significant innovation, in line with the newly ascendant Lutheran Church’s commitment to propagate the Bible in the vernacular, rather than Latin.

This vernacularisation opened up a vast new space for sacred music composition, as German phonetics dictated a one-note-per-syllable musical setting rather than the arcing glissandi of the Latin Mass. Schein, in “The Fountains of Israel,” grapples with the musical problem of how to inject the zest of Italian music into the novel syntax of the German liturgy.

The five Schein concert vocalists, imported from Switzerland, turn out to also be the soloists in tomorrow night’s Chan Centre gala, as well. “The Fountains of Israel” showed their very estimable talents in an intimate ensemble setting.

It will be interesting (if you can still get tickets) to see how they – and Bach – transpose the idiom of German liturgy to vast panorama of a grand passion play. Watch this space.      


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