By Peter Alexander
Johann Sebastian Bach died more than 250 year ago, but the Boulder Bach Festival is clearly not stuck in the past.
Under music director Zachary Carrettin, the festival, which launches its 34th season this week, will regard Bach from a multitude of perspectives, old and new. The festival will continue to feature the great sacred monuments of Bach’s career, but also his secular music, his many instrumental works, and even some wild virtuoso showpieces, as well as music by a diverse array of other composers. This year his music will be paired with contemporaries, and with 19th-century Impressionist and post-Impressionist composers; it will be performed on historical Baroque instruments, on electric violin, and on a 19th-century piano.
“These are all tools, they are all brushes that we use as we paint music,” Carrettin says. “I hope that the Bach festival will continue to present this music in a variety of guises and from a variety of perspectives.”
The opening concerts—Thursday at St. John’s Episcopal in Boulder, Friday at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver and Saturday in First Lutheran in Longmont, all at 7:30—will be performed by Aeris, a trio comprising Carrettin on violin with cellist William Skeen and harpsichordist Avi Stein.
Using gut strings, Baroque bows and historically accurate instruments, Aeris focuses on the extensive and sometimes astonishing virtuoso violin repertoire of the 18th century. To launch the 2014-15 festival, they will perform a sonata by Bach, but also sonatas by Italian composers of the era, including Locatelli, Veracini, Stradella and Vivaldi.
“These are phenomenal characters in music,” Carrettin says. “Stradella was stabbed to death twice, the second time successfully, due to his marital infidelities. Veracini was such a virtuoso that the great Tartini went home to practice bowing technique after he heard Veracini, because he was so blown away. And Niccolo Matteis, was a great Italian who showed up with a backpack and no money in London around 1670.”
As outlandish as those Italians may sound, Carrettin believes that Bach belongs right in there with them, at least musically: “We pick music that explores the fantasia dreamscape, explores in a sense the out-of-body experience. And the Bach sonata that we chose for this program completely fits that description.
“It is stunning pyrotechnics of the violin, with an unrelenting sustained pedal, and finally when the whole thing just blows up, the aria movement is full of heart-wrenching suspensions and dissonances, and asymmetrical phrases. It’s really incredible, and it’s completely Italian in every sense of the word.”
A fascination with that kind of virtuoso music that pushes the limits is something that the members of Aeris have in common. “We came together some years ago and realized that when it comes to the 17th- and 18th-century Italian violin literature, we’re really on the same page,” Carrettin says.
“It’s as if we’ve known each other for several lifetimes at this point. Our improvisations are very intertwined and very exploratory, and I don’t think any one of us could do it without the other two members of the group. Without a doubt I play better and more imaginatively with them and because of them.”
# # #
Carrettin has recently moved from Texas, where he held a full-time university position, to live in Boulder. This gives him an opportunity to be more involved in the running of the festival and its educational efforts.
“It is such a spectacular place that I’m so thankful that I get to spend this time of my life in Boulder,” Carrettin says. “My being here allows me to observe what we’re already doing and to become more intimately familiar with this 34-year-old organization. And one of the great advantages for the organization is that now we can function more like chamber music.
“If you take a string quartet, they spend time together, they rehearse together, they have meals together. Well, now when I look at my relationship to the board and the executive director and artists from the front range, I get to out and have coffee and have conversations and dream and take notes about what other people are telling me. There’s so much more time for the chamber music of running an organization.”
One of Carrettin’s ventures will be an outreach to people who may not have taken an interest in the Bach Festival in previous years. “We now have a sub-series called Compass, which is away of presenting Bach in a non-traditional format, in different venues and maybe attracting some of the audiences that we don’t have yet.
“For example, I’m doing an all-electric violin performance of the Bach Cello Suites at the Diary Center for the Arts (7 p.m. Feb. 6, 2015), with amplified reverb. It’s an interesting way bringing archaic music into relevance for a younger generation in the 21st century that may not yet be familiar with Bach’s music language.”
In some ways, the second Compass concert will be even more radical. “Bach UnCaged” (7 p.m. March 17 and 28 at the Dairy) will feature music by Bach and by American 20th-century avant-garde composer John Cage performed on electric violin and keyboard, with 3rd Law Dance/Theater.
The most traditional program of the season, performances of Bach’s Mass in B minor (7:30 p.m. Feb. 27 at Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver and Feb. 28 at First United Methodist Church in Boulder), will bring back one of the mainstays of the festival’s history, and one of the great musical works of the European tradition, but they will also have a new twist of their own.
“The piece was never performed in its entirety in Bach’s lifetime, and aside from the structure of the Mass, there are some questions as far as the intention of how it was to be performed,” Carrettin explains. “I’ll surprise your audience by saying I’ve made some minor adjustments in the form and added in a couple of surprises that I hope will pull together a Mass into more of a concert experience.”
The last concert of the season (7:30 p.m. June 6, 2015, in Grusin Hall on the CU campus) will feature Carrettin with pianist Mina Gajić playing a program of Bach along with late 19th-century Impressionists and post-Impressionists. And this is the program that will bring in that 19th-century piano.
Gajić has a decade of experience with 19th-century pianos, and she fell in love with a 19th-century piano in Amsterdam,” Carrettin explains. “It would be the piano for playing Debussy or Ravel or even Bartók, but you know, it’s also the piano for playing Bach. It’s a spectacular instrument, and in the 21st century, I hope we’re starting to look at the notion of period instruments differently.”
As he settles into his residence in Boulder, meeting musicians from across Colorado and bringing in life-long friends from around the country, Carrettin is finding a sense of mission in his work for the Boulder Bach Festival.
“Combining front-range world-class artists with great musicians form other parts of the country is part of my own personal mission,” he says. “I think we all as musicians love meeting new people and seeing old friends, and that’s how we do it, that’s part of the reason we do this for a living, with all of its struggle.”
# # #
BOULDER BACH FESTIVAL
Zachary Carrettin, music director
Season-opening chamber music concert
Zachary Carrettin, violin; William Skeen, cello; and Avi Stein, harpsichord
Sonatas by Locatelli, Veracini, Matteis, Stradella, Vivaldi and Bach
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Boulder
7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, St. John’s Cathedral, Denver
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, First Lutheran Church, Longmont
7 p.m. Feb. 6, 2015
Dairy Center for the Arts, Boulder
J.S. Bach: Mass in B minor, “Dance of Life”
7:30 p.m. Feb. 27, 2015, Montview Presbyterian Church, Denver
7:30 p.m. Feb. 28, 2015, First United Methodist Church, Boulder
With 3rd Law Dance/Theater
7 p.m. March 27 & 28, 2015
Dairy Center for the Arts, Boulder
Six Degrees of Separation
Zachary Carrettin, violin, and Mina Gajić, piano
7:30 p.m. June 6, 2015
Grusin Music Hall, Imig Music Building, CU Boulder