The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical Music preview: Emmanuel Music of Boston brings an all-Bach program this Saturday and Sunday to close the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival

September 2, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. (sold-out), the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival will wrap up its current summer season with two performances of an all-Bach concert.

The special guest performers are soprano Kendra Colton (below top) and oboist Peggy Pearson (below bottom), who perform at Emmanuel Music of Boston, which was founded in 1970 and is marking its 40th anniversary this year under its new director Ryan Turner.

That’s also where, ever since Emmanuel was founded, Token Creek co-director and prize-winning composer John Harbison (below)  has performed as principal guest conductor, and, for the last three years, and served as interim director, and where his wife and the festival’s other co-director Rose Mary Harbison has performed on the violin.

Local performers – including violinists Heather Wittels and Laura Burns, violist Jennifer Paulson, cellist Karl Lavine and bassist Ross Gilliland — will also be featured  in this weekend’s concerts.

The program includes: four soprano arias from Cantatas Nos. 58, 93, 98 and 171; the Concerto for Oboe and Violin; three Chorale Preludes; and Cantata No. 84, “I am overwhelmed by my good fortune.”

Here is a link to the Token Creek Festival:

John Harbison recently took time out from preparing for the festival -– he will make introductory remarks and also perform on a 2004 continuo organ -– to talk about Emmanuel Music and J.S. Bach:

Can you give us some background about Emmanuel Church of Boston?

The music program is based at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, which is a progressive church to put it mildly. It is a very old church. The grandfather of composer and my teacher Roger Sessions was a rector there. It’s a very powerful downtown location and goes way back.

It used to be very mainstream. But the “jazz priest” Al Kershaw made the church an arts haven. He started a jazz school and was a real radical at odds with the diocese, but he attracted a new congregation. There was a period when the church was defrocked for its behavior. Now its mode of living has been reached. It has its first openly lesbian leader and has a collective ministry, which includes a rabbi who preaches every fourth Sunday.

The musical organization was formed in 1970 by Craig Smith, a visionary who led it until he died in 2007. When he was shown the cantatas, Al Kershaw got the connections between jazz and Bach. So the complete cycle of more than 200 cantatas has been performed several times along with the complete songs of Schubert, which took 12 years.

Emmanuel Music (below) is all professional musicians and has been a training ground for a huge number of players who are now dispersed around the country, including our violinist Heather Wittels.

Does it use period or modern instruments?

We use modern instruments. Boston has a very lively early music scene, but Emmanuel doesn’t even worry about how people played back in Bach’s time. Our approach is more about reacting to the text for the service and the character of the piece.

The stylistic approach is independent of what we’d call the baroque. I like the idea that we are not at all doctrinal about that music. We think of it as very persuasive music and a powerful presentation of the texts. We coordinate and consult with the rector, so it takes place on many planes at the same time.

Also, at Emmanuel we believe you don’t know a composer until you knew every work.

What is the traditional of Emmanuel music?

It’s like a collegium musicum. We are Bach teachers, a core of Bach teachers. Bach’s music has dropped out of the educational process of a lot of music schools that train instrumentalists because, they say, the students won’t be playing early music in regular modern orchestras. So we travel around the country and work with other people doing this stuff.

We have a very strong personal commitment to Bach and to getting back to the persuasive function of his music. We deal with the full background. The first thing they find out is that we’re not interested the Bach style. We’re more interested in expression and being persuasive.

You have often programmed Bach at Token Creek. Why?

It is just part of our habit. We don’t ever have much time without Bach. It’s this idea of getting younger players involved. I had to battle to get Tanglewood to include one Bach cantata last year. I just really feel that the music of Bach is disappearing from the training of young musicians and we will have lost a lot of ground.

Bach’s music used to be considered a fundamental, but is now considered a luxury. That’s not how we see it. We’re proselytizers of Bach. All over the country, there are Emmanuel Music musicians who keep Bach going. We’re outside the early performance movement and we have an advantage there because it is somewhat ghettoized.

For us Bach is what Shakespeare is to some actors and writers. There’s a level of comprehension and achievement there rarely equalled and never surpassed by even other great composers like Beethoven. Bach has a range of and sense of possibility that no one else has equaled. It’s found in the to 200-plus cantatas — not in more popular or well-known works like the Brandenburg concertos or piano music. You get an inkling of it in the Passions, but even they are different. That’s what we want to get out there.

Bach is both very traditional and very avant-garde. Sometimes you are as surprised by the message as much as by the music.

You be the critic and tell us what you thought of what you heard at Token Creek.

Was the case for Bach made?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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