Why you should really go to Vancouver’s Bach Festival

Matthew White and Early Music Vancouver's Bach Festival are bringing classical music (and Johann Sebastian Bach) back in a big way this summer

August 4, 2016

By Willem Thomas / Photo: Jan Gates

Many of the joys of classical music—the breathtaking arrangements, its emotive capacity, the notion that one human mind can produce such dazzling, broad-in-scope orchestral pieces—fall on deaf ears in relation to today’s rapidly recycled, trend-based entertainment industries. While it’s certainly a shame celebrated composers and their works often become little more than Wikipedia footnotes whose modern-day vinyl pressings collect dust in $1 bins in record stores, many people aren’t entirely to blame for their ignorance of classical music. For many, the exposure to it is so rare, especially growing up, that they never really have a chance to experience much classical music or educate themselves on it.

One figure who has stood the artistic test of time stoically is Johann Sebastian Bach. Born in 1695 in Eisenach, Germany, Bach is one of the most highly-regarded composers in history. While undoubtedly a name many are familiar with, how many of those people are actually fully aware of his creative and compositional abilities, and also of his massive influence on not only classical music but almost all Western music? Early Music Vancouver, and its artistic director, Matthew White, are bringing classical music to downtown Vancouver until August 12 to educate and expose the city to the genius of everything Bach with the inaugural Vancouver Bach Festival.

Van Mag spoke to Matthew White about Bach, the festival, and why classical music—especially figures like Bach—deserves a larger audience and more people giving it a chance.

Why a festival about Bach, and why now?
Asking a question like that, in a way, is a little bit like asking “Why Shakespeare?” Bach is music’s version of Shakespeare. He’s someone who can appeal to absolutely anybody who has a heart and a brain. He’s recognizable—we know lots of his tunes, and we’ve heard lots of his music used in many, many formats. The way that he wrote music, and the style, it appeals to incredibly different types of people. His work is bulletproof from a compositional point of view. It’s marvel-worthy, it’s bewildering in its complexity, but then that’s not all it is. It also touches you when you listen to it. You can tell a deeply emotive, thoughtful human being wrote it.

How did you select the works to be showcased for the festival?
What we decided was for the inaugural festival, we would focus on a lot of his better-known works, and then just see how it goes. We’ve been really encouraged, because the ticket sales have been great. We’ll be offering a range of Bach’s works, from his most intimate—like the Cello SuitesThe Art of the Fugue for harpsichord, and the Goldberg Variations—all the way to some of his grander work, like the Mass in B minor, which is one of the largest scale things he wrote. It wasn’t even ever meant to be performed; it was more of an audition piece, to demonstrate his full expressive power and compositional ability. You’ve probably heard bits of it, many times, without even knowing it. It’s inconceivably beautiful and awe-inspiring. There’s no better improviser in history than Bach, that’s what they say. He could write a fugue on the spot, if he had to. His music represents the best aspects of human character and ability.

Well, they did send Bach to space.
They did, on the golden record—which Bach was featured very heavily on. That makes perfect sense to me, and to a lot of people.

Matthew White

How important was it to hold the festival downtown in the summer?
It was more of a historical decision. The Vancouver Early Music Festival has been at this time for over 20 years. It’s because the festival started as an offshoot of our summer music programs held out at UBC. Faculty coming here to teach workshops would then put on concerts in the evening for the students and for anybody who wanted to come. As these concerts became more and more successful, our organization started thinking, “We should move these downtown and see how it goes, maybe we could reach more people.” The standards of the concerts were absolutely super and word was spreading—so it was decided to try and attract a bigger audience.

Could you tell me a bit about the concerts the Bach Festival will be showcasing?
The first one is actually a really interesting choice for the first concert of an Early Music Festival. We’ve hired a jazz pianist to play the Goldberg Variations, and of course, purists would say, “How can you have a non-period instrument for a period-instrument festival?” Authenticity isn’t just about the technology and the instruments that you’re using, but it’s about authenticity of spirit. Like I mentioned before, Bach was renowned for being one of the world’s greatest improvisers and was certainly the greatest organ improviser of his age.

And improvisation includes trying new ideas, pushing boundaries. 
Exactly. It’s about structured improvisation, jazz especially. It’s about trying out new ideas, but within the context of a musical structure. There’s a harmonic framework, and you improvise within it. Because that’s such a big part of Bach’s identity, that it made sense to start the festival off with somebody playing in a jazz idiom. Some people say, that if Bach were alive today, he would be a jazz musician.

How would you say the state of classical music in Canada is right now?
I believe that a lot of the music that dominates the airwaves nowadays is essentially a sales pitch. Classical music is now being moved far enough to the edges of public awareness that it’s really become a niche market. I know that symphony orchestras the world over are having a much tougher time attracting audiences. I think that’s too bad, because a lot of the musical heritage, and the music that the symphonies and the baroque orchestras, and the pieces that so many classical musicians play and work hard on, is still music that deserves a place in our minds and in our hearts. When I think about Bach, the reason I listen to him is because, unlike a lot of what I hear on the radio when I get in my car, it inspires me—it makes me feel hopeful. It’s multicoloured. There are not just three chords, there are a gazillion chords. There are so many ways of hearing harmony and sound. I think the dismissal of classical music is another way of dumbing things down so people only consume what they’re told to.

So what else is so significant about Bach?
Much of Western musical history rests on the pillars that Bach put in place. He is as big in music as Shakespeare is in writing. For anyone with even a basic understanding of harmony, Bach is the man. The idea that schools would consider pulling that guy out, removing a love and understanding—even a basic awareness—of Bach’s existence from the average person’s experience is abhorrent to me.

It’s as if music has come so far, and there’s so many options, it’s no longer common knowledge by any means just how present and influential classical music is in modern composition and songwriting. 
It’s a huge part of it. There’s so much great classical music so many more people could enjoy if they just had a little bit of exposure to it. It’s hard to believe we’re questioning the value of classical music exposure. I feel very strongly about what I’m a part of here at EMV, and we’re trying to give as many people access to this music as possible. Classical music deserves a place at the table still. If we end up neglecting it to the point that most people don’t even have an awareness of it, we’re losing something profound and special.

The Vancouver Bach Festival runs from August 2 to 12, with concerts taking place at the Christ Church Cathedral (690 Burrard St.) and the Chan Shun Concert Hall at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts (6265 Crescent Rd.). Tickets, concert information, and more are available at earlymusic.bc.ca

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