Boulder Bach Festival begins their season with a Baroque adventure

Carrettin will explore the context of chorales and concertos

By Peter Alexander

The Boulder Bach Festival (BBF) doesn’t just give concerts. They offer musical adventures.

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Zachary Carrettin

Zachary Carrettin, who has been artistic director of the festival for the past three years, loves to explore the musical world around Bach: the ways he heard music performed, the musicians who influenced him, and those who were influenced in their turn by him. Which is pretty much everybody in Europe before and after Bach.

This weekend, Carrettin and the festival will explore one of the most basic elements of Bach’s musical world: the Lutheran chorale tunes that gave rise to, and were part of, so many other types of music. The program, “Concertos and Chorales Contextualized,” includes chorales, chorale preludes, motets, and—as the title suggests—two concertos.

The music is by a parade of great German Lutheran composers of the 17th and 18th centuries—not only J.S. Bach, but also Samuel Scheidt, Johann Hermann Schein, Dietrich Buxtehude, Michael Praetorius and Batholomaeus Gesius. If you don’t recognize those names, don’t be alarmed: they are all predecessors who paved the way for Bach, and their music is well worth hearing and getting to know.

Photography by Glenn Ross. http://on.fb.me/16KNsgK

Carrettin with the BBF Chorus and players. Photography by Glenn Ross.

The Lutheran chorales were the predecessors of all the hymns that are known and loved in the various Protestant denominations. They were not only used for congregational singing, they became the basis of elaborate pieces for organ, known as chorale preludes; they appeared in many diverse forms in cantatas and motets, such as were written by Bach and other composers of the Baroque period; and as familiar tunes and emotional anchors, they appear all through Bach’s settings of the passion story.

“The Lutheran chorale tradition that preceded Bach included so many imaginative and meaningful harmonic settings of the same chorale melody,” Carrettin says. “Composers such as Scheidt and Schein that you will hear on this program, really show their individuality in these simple 12- and 16-measure, four-voice chorales.

“The contrapuntal treatment has such potential for variety, and they’re also extraordinary pieces to hear on an emotional level, both from the message behind the text and also the message within the harmonic realization. These works are among the most simple and yet powerful pieces in our European music tradition.”

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Organist/harpsichordist Christopher Holman

Illustrating the power of the chorale tunes, the concert opens with three different settings of a melody well known to Lutherans of Bach’s time, Durch Adams Fall is ganz verderbt. It will be performed first as an organ chorale prelude—an elaborated setting of the tune that often showed the organist’s skill as composer or improviser. Then the BBF instrumentalists will perform an arrangement of a chorale prelude by J.S. Bach, and singers will perform Schein’s four-voice setting of the tune.

Other manifestations of chorales will include eight-voice settings in Renaissance style by Scheidt, chorale settings by Praetorius, and two motets by J.S. Bach.

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Samuel Scheidt

Nestled among some relatively unfamiliar works will be two very familiar ones: Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor and Sixth Brandenburg Concerto. Acknowledging that these popular pieces would be a good audience draw, Carrettin says “if programming the Bach two-violin concerto brings people to a concert where they can hear a double chorus motet by Samuel Scheidt, then I’m certainly happy!”

But he has more in mind than adding popular pieces to an unfamiliar program. “The concertos are complex and at times dense in the writing, energetic, and highly contrapuntal. The affect is completely different than sacred choral music, and yet the journey through the sonorities and through the harmonic progressions has a lot of similarity with the chorales.

“In juxtaposing sacred and secular music, I’m hoping to whet the palette of all our listeners to really internalize what’s special about the harmony and the counterpoint in this music.”

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Carrettin with his cello da spalla

One special feature of the concertos will be that Carrettin will introduce Boulder audiences to a new instrument he has revived from the Baroque period: the cello da spalla. Literally a “shoulder cello,” it is in effect a small cello fitted with a neck strap, like a guitar, and played more like a violin or viola. For the Brandenburg Concerto, he and co-soloist Renee Hemsing Patten will play two parts of the concerto on these unusual instruments.

Carrettin knew of this instrument from reading descriptions of Baroque music performances. “I commissioned this cello da spalla, made by the luthiers at Cavallo Violins in Omaha last spring, working from a variety of primary sources from the Baroque,” he says. “In the Brandenburg Concerto we will play Bach’s original viola da gamba parts. We will use baroque bows as they help to create a sound similar to the viola da gamba.”

These instruments are so rare that harpsichordist Christopher Holman remarked at one rehearsal that he was probably “the first keyboardist in the history of the United States to play with a cellist da spalla to his left and right!”

But whether talking about motets or the concertos, Carrettin’s discussion of the program always circles back to the chorales. Sung hymn-like in simple four parts, or as part of a larger work, they have deep meaning for him—and potentially for everyone in the audience, regardless of spiritual background.

“These works have a certain meaning to Lutherans, they have a certain meaning to all Protestants, they have a meaning to all Christians,” Carrettin says. “But they also have an incredible, powerful, transcendental poetic effect on those who are not believers in the Christian faith.

“I’m hoping that our audiences will embrace the music and the texts on their own terms.”

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Boulder Bach Festival
Zachary Carrettin, artistic director

“Concertos and Chorales Contextualized”
Boulder Bach Festival Chorus and Chamber Choir with soloists
Zachary Carrettin, conductor and violinist, with
Christopher Holman, organ and harpsichord
Keith Barnhart, Baroque guitar continuo

Lutheran chorale settings and works by J.S. Bach, Samuel Scheidt, Johann Hermann Schein, Dietrich Buxtehude, Michael Praetorius and Batholomaeus Gesius

7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14
St. John’s Episcopal Church, 1350 Washington St., Denver
Tickets 

4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16
Boulder Adventist Church, 345 Mapleton Ave., Boulder
Tickets

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Composers go into the wild and come home transformed

By Peter Alexander

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Composers in the Wilderness, Denali National Park and Preserve

There is a wildness in the natural world that most of us never meet. But when we do, we are likely to be transformed.

“I definitely feel changed as a person,” Alondra Vega says after brushing against the Alaskan wilderness. “The experience almost seems like it was too extraordinary to have happened,” Cassie To writes.

13690752_594538287385367_7602763590110916242_nFor Sam Young, an ex-Boulderite living in Los Angeles, touching the wild was an epiphany: “Whenever I come to a place like this, I re-evaluate my entire life and think, ‘Is it all wrong, what I’m doing?’”

Vega, To and Young were three of nine participants in “Composing in the Wilderness,” a workshop led by composer Stephen Lias in Alaska this past summer. The goal of the workshop, Lias says, is to give composers the transformative experience that comes from stepping into the natural world.

“Going into the backcountry of Alaska, I know the experience will change people,” he says. “I wouldn’t presume to guess in what way, but the art that they create will be a manifestation of whatever the change was.

“My favorite thing is putting these composers in that environment and just watching Alaska do its thing on them.”

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Composer Stephen Lias

Lias is known to Boulder audiences for his orchestral piece Gates of the Arctic, premiered by the Boulder Philharmonic in 2014 — a product of Alaska doing its thing on him. He will be back this year, when his All the Songs that Nature Sings will be premiered by the orchestra and conductor Michael Butterman March 25, 2017, and subsequently performed by them at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., March 28.

Working in cooperation with Alaska Geographic, the National Park Service and the Fairbanks Arts Festival, Lias has presented the workshop every year since 2012. It is designed as both an outdoors and an artistic adventure. The composers gather in Denali National Park, where they hike and explore the backcountry. They learn about the wilderness environment from rangers and naturalists.

After Denali, the composers transfer to the remote Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, where they have four days to compose a new piece inspired by their experiences. Written for performers from the Fairbanks Arts Festival, the pieces are all trios or quartets, but adding to the musical adventure, the composers don’t know in advance what instruments they will write for.

The pieces have to be fairly short and simple, because they have to be written quickly and learned even more quickly by the performers. That forms the third and final segment of the workshop: in just a few days the completed pieces are rehearsed and performed, first in Denali National Park, and then as part of the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival.

The workshop takes nine participants on a first-come, first-served basis. This year there were five women and four men, ranging in age from early 20s to AARP-eligible. They came from all over: two from Australia, one from New Zealand by way of New York, one from Cuba by way of Canada, the rest from around the U.S.

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The author in Alaska with sons Michael (l) and Ivan (r): Kenai Fjords National Park

As it happens, I had my own Alaskan adventure this summer, driving, hiking and flightseeing in the state with my two oldest sons. I timed my trip to hear this year’s workshop concert, “Sounds of Nature: Alaska Premieres,” July 26 at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. I saw glaciers larger than counties, and stretches of boreal forest larger than several states. And like the composers in the workshop, the vast land profoundly moved me.

When you face such an overwhelming immensity of nature, full of life but devoid of visible human presence, it’s hard not to be affected.

. . . . .

We are often told that nature is cruel, but that is not really true. Nature understands neither kindness nor cruelty; it is indifferent. That is the great lesson of the wilderness, as I was reminded in Anaktuvuk Pass and the composers, well cared for as they were, encountered in Denali: When we leave our well insulated lives to venture into the real world of nature, we have to be prepared to take responsibility for ourselves.

13718714_594543404051522_4074485623699253369_nWashington, very much a city-dweller from New York, had an experience that captures just what Lias hopes the composers will discover in their brush with nature. “We hiked up this high mountain pass and we were given space to go out on our own and just sit quietly and reflect,” she recalls. “I felt like an intruder in some ways — like my breathing was too loud.

“A moth came and landed on my hand, and I didn’t want to move because I was interrupting its space. It was really peaceful, and really real because everything has been undisturbed for so long. Being able to trespass there for a couple of days has been really calming.”

13718623_594538980718631_7012257335267384579_nOf all the participants, David John Lang may have captured the power of wilderness most eloquently. After returning to his home, in Adelaide, South Australia, he writes: “I took my journal, in which I often write letters to God, but I was surprised at how little I wrote while I was in Alaska. It was like I was too busy being a listener for once, hearing and seeing and loving God’s creation.

“I felt really, really small, and it was awesome.”

Read the entire article in Boulder Weekly.