Why the world needs more Bach

'It forces us to stop, listen and reconnect with our potential,' says Matthew White, executive and artistic director of the Vancouver Bach Festival.

'It forces us to stop, listen and reconnect with our potential'

'When you think of Bach you think of someone with absolutely superlative standards.' — Matthew White (Public domain, Melody Lau)

Ask anybody and they'll likely tell you: the greatest composer of all time was J.S. Bach.

It's subjective, of course, but also sort of a fact. Bach's music combines melody, form and drama with a perfection that everyone agrees seems to transcend human achievement.

The Vancouver Bach Festival is set to begin on July 30, with programming centred on Bach, of course, but extending to Mozart, Fauré and Shostakovich, too.

We invited Matthew White, executive and artistic director of Early Music Vancouver (EMV), the festival's organizing body, to explain why the world needs more Bach.

Written by Matthew White

I grew up in a household with a charismatic but essentially serious central banker for a father who was constantly predicting doom-and-gloom scenarios around the dinner table. The idea that the world economy, the environment and civilization itself are on the imminent verge of collapse has been a constant refrain in my ears for about 45 years now.

While recent evidence seems to suggest he might finally be right, there has been an equally insistent voice throughout my life reminding me that despite all of the noise, Trumpian distraction of "fake news," and fear-mongering of modern life, human beings are still capable of conceiving, producing, and disseminating almost unimaginably beautiful things when they so desire. That balancing voice for me is J.S. Bach.

Les Boréades will perform Bach's Brandenburg Concertos at the Chan Centre on July 30 and 31 as part of the 2019 Vancouver Bach Festival. (Hugo B. Lefort)

In 2016, EMV renamed its annual Summer Early Music Program and Festival to the Vancouver Bach Festival because a lot of people have a difficult time understanding what the "early music" movement means. Is it music that is performed in the morning? Is it music for children? Is it a time period? If so, when does it start and when does it end? Does music from non-Western European cultures count?

A Bach Festival, however, did not have the same issues. J.S. Bach, more than any other Western classical composer, represents the pinnacle of music that came before him and an undeniable inspiration for all composers who followed. His name is now synonymous with great music — period. Like Shakespeare, his work bridges virtually all divergent tastes and cultures.

'What it means to be human'

Inspiration and consolation are at the heart of why Bach and the quality of music he represents are so important today. Even if enough people don't know it, they are hungry to experience art driven not by corporate and selfish interest, but by the honest grappling with what it means to be human.

On Aug. 8, 2019, the Vancouver Bach Festival presents an hommage to Barbara Strozzi with sopranos Suzie LeBlanc (pictured) and Dorothee Mields. (Tara McMullen)

People have little room left to consider their own perspective on the things that give life meaning. Obsessions like Vancouver real estate and the overuse of social media platforms are making us sick and depressed. The devotion and creative genius behind the music we program as part of the Vancouver Bach Festival are the best antidote I know for this type of modern affliction. It forces us to stop, listen and reconnect with our potential.

In today's classical music world it is impossible to tackle the music of J.S. Bach, or in fact any important composer, without taking into consideration the absolutely vast amount of research that has gone into looking at music from the past through the lens of historically informed performance practice, "an approach to the performance of classical music, which aims to be faithful to the manner and style of a musical era and using the technology specific to the period in which it was written."

In practical terms, this translates to things like using gut strings instead of nylon or steel when playing music written before the early 20th century, identifying at what pitch compositions were originally played, and using original manuscripts and treatises as guides on how to play a given repertoire. It is in many people's opinion at the core of what the early music movement is about.

EMV is the only presenter in the Lower Mainland of B.C. with this particular focus and while we are not slavishly devoted to this approach, we do believe firmly that context helps artists to be more expressive and often helps music speak more eloquently. Figuring out how to perform the music of J.S. Bach has been at the very centre of the early music movement for almost 50 years now, and I believe this approach has played a vital part in translating a huge variety of music coming from essentially different civilizations, to modern audiences.

'Superlative standards'

Violinist Marc Destrubé leads a concert of string trios by Mozart on Aug. 2, 2019, at Christ Church Cathedral, a presentation of the Vancouver Bach Festival. (Jan Gates)

Though artistic excellence is a subjective term, it almost doesn't seem so when discussing the music of J.S. Bach. Nobody ever, ever disagrees when you qualify his music as excellent. People just get it. When you think of Bach you think of someone with absolutely superlative standards. His music is universally accepted as clear evidence that trying your best might actually be worth it! 

Finally, when I think of Bach, I think of collaboration and the separate but equal parts he wrote that are always almost magically in balanced dialogue. In creating a Bach Festival, EMV wanted to create a platform for bringing together many of Vancouver's most talented performers with some of the world's established stars in early music. This ongoing collaboration and dialogue has been a wonderful way of inspiring our local artists and providing our audiences with access to some of the world's most exciting performers working in our field.

The Vancouver Bach Festival runs from July 30 to Aug. 9. For complete information, head over here.