Johann Sebastian in Bardo

EMV's BachFest places the Master in musical context

Bach en famille. "Not dropped from the sky." Image: Toby Rosenthal

J.S. Bach – namesake and raison d’être of the recurrent Festival series that kicks-off Early Music Vancouver’s annual concert season – still draws audiences like no other musical headliner from the baroque era.

Judging from the full-house midday and evening crowds that have packed Christ Church Cathedral all this month, it’d be easy to take the 18th century genius as a sui generis Force of Nature – an immemorial, bedrock datum of the musical landscape.

But “Bach didn’t just drop, fully formed, from the sky,” EMV Artistic Director Matthew White wants you to know. Musical antecedents decisively shaped his composition. And, after his death in 1750, his monumental body of work went into partial eclipse, largely forgotten by the wider public until it was reintroduced by a coterie of the next century’s star musicians.

So in this year’s Festival line-up, White has included an intriguing array of works by Bach’s predecessors and successors – some famous in their own right, some a bit more recherché – to help us situate the Master’s opus in its historic context.

And not just its musicological context, either. Bach and his contemporaries reflect a striking nexus of religious, technological and mercantile history, as well. Take, for instance, last week’s cello-and-piano concert that focused on the reinterpretation – or, arguably, rediscovery – of Bach by the 19th century “Historic Performance” movement in Germany.

Seattle keyboardist Byron Schenkman and Boston cellist Michael Unterman entitled their recital “Conversions,” to reflect the adaptation of baroque chorales and preludes into the more florid idiom of the Romantic era. But there’s also another type of conversion implicit in the program: all three composers on the bill were converts from Judaism to the prevailing Lutheranism of their cultural milieu.

Particularly poignant was the case of the Mendelssohns, Felix and his less famous (but arguably even more musically gifted) sister Fanny. Their grandfather, a celebrated Enlightenment philosopher, had pioneered what was to become Reform Judaism, but his descendants felt they had to convert for social acceptability as Leipzig one-percenters. The third composer on the program, Ignaz Moschles, was also born Jewish but converted when he was establishing his reputation as a celebrity pianist in the mould of his friend and collaborator, Chopin.

Last week’s BachFest "Conversions" performers – both of whom themselves grew up with Jewish backgrounds – managed to inject overtones of emotionally overwrought Yiddishkeit (or, maybe, just Romanticism) into their recital.

Schenkman made liberal use of the pedals on his piano, lending an almost schmaltzy resonance to Bach’s arpeggiated riffs. Against this backdrop, Unterman wove the figure of what he describes as a “chromatically tinted and verklempt outcry" in which he detects “Ashkenazi, or perhaps Roma” inspiration.

For extra Jewish emphasis, Schenkman even sported a kippah as he davened back and forth over the keyboard of EMV’s newly-gifted and freshly restored 1870 Broadwood grand. Not that he has a long history of religiosity, he admitted in a post-concert chat.

In fact, the yarmulke is a relatively recent addition. He only adopted it after last November’s U.S. presidential election, in solidarity with groups such as Muslims and Sikhs who find themselves under siege in Trump’s America just for wearing visible religious symbols.

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