Classical musicians don’t always agree. Ask the members of any string quartet.
What’s more, the list of composers who generate diverse opinions among musicians is long and distinguished: Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Shostakovich, Schoenberg and Puccini, to name a few.
But there is one composer who is universally admired: J.S. Bach. He wasn’t a great innovator. He didn’t found a school. He was considered a poor second choice for his most important position, and his music was considered out of date by the time he died. And yet the composers who followed him, from Mozart and Beethoven to the present day, have revered his music.
A recent New York Times list of the 10 greatest composers put him at No. 1 — almost the only thing about the project that was not controversial. Bach’s music is the foundation of study for singers, instrumentalists, conductors and theorists, and his music has been adapted for everything from jazz to schlock.
There are whole festivals devoted to his music all across the globe, from Carmel by the Sea to Kalamazoo, and from Leipzig, Germany, to Boulder — where the 30th annual Boulder Bach Festival will present concerts, lectures and a symposium from March 4 through March 12. (See the full schedule at www.boulderbachfestival.org.)
The festival culminates this year with performances of the Mass in B minor, Friday, March 11, at St.John’s Cathedral in Denver, and Saturday, March 12, at the First United Methodist Church in Boulder. Both performances are at 7:30 p.m.
“We have found over the years that the words ‘B-minor Mass’ sell,” said Robert Spillman, the interim director of the festival and conductor of the two performances of the Mass.
“The other thing that sells is the word ‘Brandenburg,’” he says, and sure enough, this year’s festival includes the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 on the festival’s chamber music concert at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 4, at the First United Methodist Church.
Other works on the chamber concert, featuring viola da gambist Ann Marie Morgan, include the Suite No. 6 for solo cello, performed on a small, five-stringed instrument known as the violoncello piccolo; and the Sonata in G minor for viola da gamba and harpsichord. Spillman, who was once the festival’s harpsichordist, will accompany Morgan and will also play two of the preludes and fugues from the Well- Tempered Clavier.
Spillman, who was director of the festival for 13 years, will be leading his fourth performance of the B-minor Mass. “It’s just ridiculously expressive,” he says of the Mass, but there’s more to it. “It’s not just pretty on the surface, but, boy, his music is really smart.”
That is both the glory and challenge of Bach’s music, Spillman says.
“If you [listen to] the surface of the music, the first impression it makes on you can be absolutely fabulous,” he says. “But it also rewards study … because of the plain old complexity of it.”
Part of the complexity comes from the use of counterpoint — the combination of different melodic lines in the various parts of the musical texture.
“One of the things that’s challenging is the fact that all the different voices get their chance to say something. Rather than it just being hymn-like, every section of the chorus is participating in the meaning of the liturgy.”
That doesn’t mean you have to follow every complex feature of the score to “get” Bach. Spillman, who was the opera conductor at the university, says that the score is both a masterpiece of sacred music and surprisingly operatic.
“[Bach’s] musical language makes the meaning of the words as specific as possible,” he says. “If you go through the whole thing there’s text painting from beginning to end. It’s right up there with Verdi and Puccini and all the other great vocal composers.”
If you are the kind of listener who gets into the structure and other complexities of the music, Spillman’s lectures on the Mass are listed on the festival website. And if you prefer the unmediated, “fabulous” first impression, by all means skip the lecture and head to the concerts.
After all, Bach is still number one.
On the Bill
The Boulder Bach Festival presents the Festival Chamber Concert at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 4, at First United Methodist Church in Boulder, and the B-minor Mass at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 11, at St. John’s Cathedral, Denver, and at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 12, at First United Methodist Church in Boulder. For other events, see www.boulderbachfestival.org.