Conducting Bach in a 21st Century Urban Environment: A Case for Retreat

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It was the end of March and the Great Music series concert featuring Bach’s Magnificat and Easter Oratorio was just a few weeks down the road. My hope and dream for this concert was to capture the spirit and eloquence of this extraordinary music in a way that honors its historic importance but also resonates for the modern listener. But, I was concerned how I would properly prepare myself to conduct these works from a different era in a busy, noisy, distracting and at times overwhelming environment.

My first thought was that music never occurs in a vacuum; to try to remove oneself from the present in order to represent art from an earlier time is folly and essentially impossible. The first steps toward an historically informed performance had already been taken by inviting singers and instrumentalists who know, love and understand this style to participate in the performance. Also, the instruments to be used were copies of Baroque instruments which play at A=415 hz., exactly one-half step lower than A=440hz, the pitch used by modern orchestras.

I decided that I needed solitude and quiet to study and to open up myself to the musical possibilities of these two masterpieces. Through a friend, for three days I was given permission to use the choir room at St. Peter’s Methodist Church in Ocean City, NJ, a bustling summer resort on the Jersey shore but a very quiet place during early April. It was there that I discovered the wealth of musical imagery and nuance that Bach used in these works and how each movement becomes a separate painting in an art gallery depicting rich landscapes. I worked hard to hear individual lines and how they might be sung or played in a way to be clearly heard and shaped but fitting into the entire canvas. Most of all, I rediscovered the indisputable genius of Bach with his lucid sense of structure, unparalleled musical invention and heartfelt expressivity. I came away with a deeper sense of his great role in the history of Western civilization.

Did my stay by the ocean in this peaceful place affect the actual outcome of the performance? It certainly opened my mind and heart to the infinite ways of interpreting what Bach has written and allowed me time and focus to explore its many possibilities. I wouldn’t have spent those three days in any other way.