Bach festival comes to Nazareth in their 7th year

The seventh edition of the annual Bach Festival spreads its wings

  IRISH CONDUCTOR Peter Whelan. (photo credit: Jen Owings)
(photo credit: Jen Owings)

Over the last six years, the Bach Festival has proven to be a welcome addition to the local classical music calendar with well-attended concerts taking place in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem each year. Now Nazarene fans of the preeminent German baroque organist and composer will be able to cut down on their traveling time by catching their local slot in this year’s program, which takes place March 17-26.

The Nazareth roster at Christ Church (March 24, 1 p.m.) features three works by Bach and one by compatriot contemporary Georg Philipp Telemann, opening with Bach’s The Peasants Cantata. The performers for the occasion include soprano vocalist Nour Darwish, bass singer Lidor Ram Mesika, with soloists of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra (JBO) providing the instrumental foundation. Jerusalemites will also have an opportunity to enjoy the repertoire, at the YMCA on March 22 (8 p.m.).

The JBO forms the backbone of the festival which was established by the orchestra’s founder, conductor and harpsichord player David Shemer, who also acts as perennial artistic director. Shemer will vacate the conductor’s podium, in favor of Irish conductor Peter Whelan, who also plays harpsichord and calls himself “a lapsed bassoonist”, when the JBO performs Bach’s Mass in B minor for the festival’s centerpiece, on March 17, 18 and 19 (Tel Aviv at 1 p.m., Haifa and Jerusalem at 8 p.m.).

This will be Whelan’s first foray into this part of the world when he conducts what he simply terms “one the best pieces ever written.” “I was very excited to get the invitation to come over from David [Shemer],” he enthuses. “And conducting that piece is wonderful.”

Bach's works

Professionals in all sorts of areas of the musical universe praise Bach’s oeuvre, and his body of work is embraced and utilized by musicians across a very wide range of genres and styles. So what gives Bach such mass appeal? “Bach was an incredible musician and his music is extremely robust,” Whelan observes. “You can perform it lots of different ways and it still keeps its integrity, even if it is being played while you are holding on the telephone,” he laughs. In such a technologically satiated world, where virtual service facilities are very much the flavor of the era, that sounds like high praise.

THE MUSETHICA trio performed works by Schubert, Bach and Beethoven at this year’s Voice of Music Festival. (credit: GUY KROCCI)THE MUSETHICA trio performed works by Schubert, Bach and Beethoven at this year’s Voice of Music Festival. (credit: GUY KROCCI)

That also includes artists who work in areas of music that were not even a twinkle in anybody’s eye or ear in Bach’s time in the early 18th century. “You get these wonderful arrangements, by people like [late jazz-oriented French pianist-composer] Jacques Loussier, the music still holds together. And the [celebrated English a cappella group] The Swingle Singers.” Whelan says Bach was way ahead of the bunch in that regard. “That doesn’t hold true for other baroque composers, like Handel. Their music isn’t quite as strong.”

Over the years I have heard Bach described, by many a jazz player, as the world’s “first jazz musician.” I wondered whether Whelan went along with that seemingly incongruous epithet. “I don’t know if you could say that Bach is a jazz musician. But he is certainly a musician who has a lot in his music.”

The composition Whelan is coming over to conduct is a case in point. “The piece we are playing, the B minor Mass, was written at the end of his life,” he notes. This was in 1849, just one year before he died. Bach was 64, an extraordinarily venerable age considering the average life expectancy, for males, was all of 34 years. By then, he had written over 1,000 charts and accumulated rich professional and life experience.

All of that, says Whelan, comes into play in the B minor Mass. “In it he is assembling every kind of musical experience he has had.” Along with the endeavor and wisdom of some of his predecessors. “He is looking back into the ancient times, to [Italian late Renaissance composer] Palestrina and even before. He is like a kind of catalog of every possible kind of music up to the present day, for him.”

WHELAN DOES his own fair share of exploring the sounds of bygone years, and has performed and recorded choral and symphonic music from eighteenth-century Dublin and Edinburgh in an effort to enlighten present day audiences about the historical sonic backdrop to their lives.

That informs the score in question. “You have all these ancient sounding movements, singing that is very operatic. You have super contemporary things, and a lot of dance movements and dance music throughout the whole piece. For Lutherans that was a very important way of celebrating the divine, sort of corporeal movement.” We eventually get back to 20th-century improvisational sounds. “Maybe that is what the jazz musicians have been picking up. The music grooves.”

It does indeed. Listening to a work by Bach, particularly pieces that involve vocal contributions, you can find yourself being carried along on waves of undulating celestial airs that eddy around the ears and bewitch the mind and soul.

I suggest that the jazzy references may also hold water because of the oft-forgotten fact that, back in Bach’s day, an element of improvisation was part and parcel of classical music performance. 

“If you look at composers like Mozart, it would only be the bare bones of the pieces that remain today,” says Whelan, adding that can be highly misleading. “Vivaldi is a good example of that. The music looks so simple on the page. You use your own information with that. You can expand the music to an enormous degree. There is a skeleton of a structure and the rest can be improvised on.” More’s the pity. “We’ve lost touch of that a bit in the classical music world.”

Devotees of classical and other non-commercial areas of the musical field often eschew the efforts of artists who appear to tailor their output to the ever-fluctuating patterns of the consumer market. They prefer what they deem to be the creative high road, rather than follow the work of musicians who have at least one ear trained to the potential cash till.

If you belong to that camp Whelan has a surprise for you. It appears that pandering to customer demands is not a new game, and even the likes of Bach were not immune to the constraints of treading a fine line. “Back in Bach’s day he was always having to impress his employers and his congregation,” he advises. “It was the same with Vivaldi and Mozart. They had to please certain people to get bread on the table.”

That may also apply today, even in the more rarified climes of classical music. “Nowadays it may be about who you are trying to impress, maybe some government agency who pays money out, in grants or something like that.”

Bach may have had to cut his compositional cloth to fit certain demands, but he still left us with an enormous body of magical works.

The festival is not just about proffering enchanting sounds to adult music lovers. The 10-day program also includes some fun and games for kids and the rest of the family, in the shape of the I’ll Be Bach! production which is described as “a musical autobiographical show for all ages.”

Davai comedic wordless theater member Fyodor Makarov will get up to all sorts of antics as members of the JBO try to put out a creditable rendition of Bach’s music. That proves to be quite a challenge, as a ham-fisted stagehand unwittingly gets in the way.

Sounds like fun.

For tickets and more information: