Rick Erickson’s father told him, “When you have Bach, you don’t need anything else.”
Erickson, the new director of the Boulder Bach Festival, took that advice to heart. As a child he studied Bach on piano and organ, he performed Bach’s cantatas as a student at the Eastman School of Music, and for nearly 20 years he has headed the renowned Bach Vespers series at Holy Trinity Church in New York.
Now he adds the Boulder Bach Festival to his list of professional accomplishments. Boulder Weekly asked Erickson some questions recently about his background and his plans for the festival.
Boulder Weekly: Bach was a part of your training from the very beginning.
Rick Erickson: From the very beginning. I remember the first piano lesson I had with a marvelous piano teacher I studied with as a child. I looked at her and said, “I’m going to be an organist,” and she said, “Well, then we’re going to work on Bach!” That was pretty much that.
BW: Apart from those early piano lessons, tell me about your musical background.
RE: I am originally from Superior, Wis. I was very fortunate that I grew up in a family with a lot of musicians. My mother’s an organist, and my father always said, “When you have Bach, you don’t need anything else.”
I have had a pretty clear sail all of my life, in terms of what I wanted to pursue. My mother made sure I had wonderful teachers, and at that time I was also singing in all the choirs I could get into. I did my bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin, Superior, and then went on to the Eastman School, where I studied both organ and conducting. In Rochester I found myself at a wonderful church that was very closely connected to the Eastman School — a lot of faculty and students attend — and we put together a Bach cantata series.
Then, almost 20 years ago, Holy Trinity [Church] in New York, with the Bach Vespers series, rang up and asked me if I would be interested in talking to them about coming down there. I had the experience of inheriting this wonderful program that had existed for 25 years. I have been fortunate to have worked with a lot brilliant players and singers, and I hope that I have paid attention to what they were doing. The fact that I do an enormous amount of Bach in the Vespers Series has meant that I have done well over 100 of the cantatas and all of the socalled major works. And I think that I’ve been very fortunate; I’ve been able to just simply learn as I go.
BW: There are more Bach festivals around the world than any other composer. Why do you think that is?
RE: I think Bach survives, and more than survives, thrives, in such a wide variety of settings, whether it be from period instruments to Bach on kazoos. I’ll never forget walking down a street in Amsterdam and hearing the “A-minor Prelude and Fugue,” but it was not an organ playing — it was four accordionists, and it was absolutely stunning.
Bach is always worth the effort. It doesn’t matter. Bach speaks in a sacred setting, in a secular setting, in a Western setting, in an Eastern setting. So it makes sense that there are Bach festivals everywhere. What a great thing! What better thing to have a festival about?
BW: Were you familiar with the Boulder Bach Festival before you came here as director?
RE: I was certainly aware of Spillman’s work here, and I had studied with Bob when I was at Eastman.
BW: How did you hear about the job here?
RE: I received a letter but I was on sabbatical, and I got back to the states and picked up the phone, I think it was right at the deadline. I said, “This seems like something I’d be very interested in,” and the way the festival has been constructed it was not in conflict with my time commitment in New York. I love living in New York, but it’s also sometimes wonderful to get your head out of New York and have different perspectives. I love Boulder — I have a sister who lives here, a niece who lives here, and another niece in Denver, so I’ve known Boulder for years and I really enjoy coming out here.
BW: Do you have plans to take this festival in a new direction?
RE: That has certainly been the indication from the board. I think the Boulder Bach Festival has had a really fine history. I have begun by focusing on the instrumental ensemble, building a strong instrumental core and then letting that strengthen the choral language which is there. We’ve brought in a marvelous new choral master, Gregg Cannady, who went though a strong audition process. Our concertmaster, Zacahry Carrettin, is just a phenomenally talented person, as is everyone that I have met in the ensemble.
BW: Finally, a couple of silly questions. What would people be surprised to know about you?
RE: That I’m a really avid bike rider.
Not a sport rider — I’m the guy who likes to look up and see the scenery — but I bike everywhere. And I love Boulder’s trails.
BW: What else do you do when you’re not doing Bach?
RE: This is a great town for foodies, and I love the restaurants that I’m getting to know here. It’s a super eating and drinking life here.
BW: Finally, can you sum up in one sentence why Bach is so special to musicians and audiences alike?
RE: I think Bach is good for our soul.
[Laughs.] I really do!