Bach Week at 40: Festival thrives by keeping the musical mix fresh

Bach Week

Bach Week, "Concerto for Two Harpsichords," from 2011, Richard Webster conducting. (April 9, 2013)

One sign that spring has really and truly sprung hereabouts is the annual Bach Week Festival.

This year's four-concert celebration of Johann Sebastian Bach's music and related works marks an important milestone: the festival's 40th season. Programs will be given over two weekends in late April and early May at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston and, for the first time, at North Park University on Chicago's North Side.

That Bach Week has not only survived but thrived this many years owes in large measure to the musical and organizational skills, and dedication, of Richard Webster, who has served as the festival's music director and conductor since 1975.

Webster, who as a student at Northwestern University, helped organize and played harpsichord and organ at the inaugural Bach Festival in May 1974, is as pleased as anyone the festival remains one of the most beloved rites of spring in Chicago music.

"I honestly had no clue when we first started that we would still be around 40 years later. It's a wonderful thing that we've managed to keep going this long," says Webster. The former Chicagoan, now music director of Boston's historic Trinity Church, makes regular pilgrimages back to the Midwest to plan, rehearse and conduct the Bach Week concerts.

Part of his strategy for inducing the festival public to return season after season is mixing more unusual solo, orchestral and choral pieces with old standbys.

The 40th edition, for example, will include Bach's second "Brandenburg" concerto and "Magnificat"; two Bach keyboard concertos performed (along with solo works by Liszt and Messiaen) on a modern piano; and music by members of the Couperin family played on harpsichord by Jason Moy. The roster again includes instrumentalists and singers from the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera orchestras, Grant Park Chorus and local freelance musicians.

The soloist for the festival opener on April 19 will be pianist Sergei Babayan, the Armenian-born, Moscow-trained winner of the 1989 Casadesus International Piano Competition (now Cleveland International Piano Competition). He will devote the bulk of his solo recital to Bach's towering "Goldberg" Variations, last heard at the festival roughly a dozen years ago.

All three Bach keyboard works will be performed on the Steinway grand piano at Nichols Concert Hall of the Music Institute of Chicago, one of Bach Week's partner presenters this year. Webster has no qualms about departing this once from the festival's traditional use of harpsichord as a solo instrument.

"I know Baroque purists won't like it, but Bach's music is so universal, so adaptable to so many instruments, why limit your options?," he says. Besides, he adds, "Babayan is such a renowned Bach interpreter that we couldn't let this opportunity go by."

Also new this year is Bach Week's first performance within the Chicago city limits. (Every other festival took place exclusively in Evanston.) The grand finale on May 5 will be held at North Park University's Anderson Chapel, where the festival Chorus will be augmented by the university chamber singers for Bach's "Magnificat." The instrumental soloists will be CSO members Christopher Martin, trumpet; Katinka Kleijn, cello; and North Park organist Margaret Martin.

Webster is looking to inaugurate an annual collaboration between Bach Week and the North Park University School of Music. The idea is not only to open festival concerts to new audiences but also to increase the music school's visibility, while giving some of North Park's best music students the opportunity to perform alongside some of the area's top professional instrumentalists and choristers.

"I think this embedded relationship we are forging with North Park will be just the thing to carry the festival into another decade," Webster says.

His devotion to Bach Week extends beyond the podium. Each year he runs in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon to raise funds for the festival. In 2008, he ran the race dressed as Johann Sebastian himself, complete with wig and knee britches. For last year's marathon he donned a big red-and-white-striped hat and went as Dr. Seuss' Cat in the Hat. His efforts netted several thousand dollars for Bach Week.

Webster doesn't know yet what costume he will don for this year's marathon, which is scheduled to take place Oct. 13, the same day as Bach Week's own "Bachtoberfest" fundraiser. Whatever outfit he wears, "it's always a lot of fun to dress up" for a worthy cause, he observes.

Bach Week concerts will be given at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. April 19, and 3 p.m. April 21, in Nichols Concert Hall, Music Institute of Chicago, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston. The festival finale wil be at 2:30 p.m. May 5 at Anderson Chapel, North Park University, 5149 N. Spaulding Ave.; $30, $20 for seniors, $10 for students and children; 800-595-4849, bachweek.org.

MOB's 'Israel in Egypt'

Music director Jane Glover's journey through the big 18th century choral masterpieces with her Music of the Baroque chorus and orchestra took her to Handel's biblical oratorio "Israel in Egypt," in a stylish and satisfying performance heard Sunday evening at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

Largely because of its many magnificent choruses, "Israel in Egypt" has managed to run a respectable second to "Messiah" as Handel's most popular oratorio. MOB's fine chorus, prepared by its director, William Jon Gray, honored the composer's musical invention with secure blending of voices (34 in all) and the crisp urgency of its declamation.

Glover understood that Handel was, first and foremost, a man of the theater. Her shaping of the second and third parts, which depict the plagues visited on Egypt and Moses' hymn of praise following the Exodus, respectively, reflected a vivid and exacting attention to the text. The depiction of buzzing flies, hopping frogs and swarming locusts was nicely taken by the MOB strings. Glover adhered to the composer's own performance practice by omitting Part 1, "The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph," thereby shaving about 45 minutes off an already long oratorio.

Apart from a rather weak countertenor, the vocal soloists (all members of the MOB chorus) made admirable contributions. Particularly impressive was soprano Sarah Gartshore in her ethereal aria, "Thou didst blow with the wind" and in the exultant final chorus, "Sing ye to the Lord." Tenor Daniel Shirley's articulate delivery was to the Handelian manner born.

jvonrhein@tribune.com | Twitter @jvonrhein

CHICAGO

More