Music always is evolving as an art form. All composers, no matter how original or innovative, were at some point influenced by their predecessors. However, no classical composer has been more pioneering than Johann Sebastian Bach.
Two West Michigan organizations, the Grand Rapids Bach Festival and the Kalamazoo Bach Festival, are revealing the human dimensions of the 18th-century composer with a variety of events this spring.
From biography to biography, Bach is described as a cantankerous fellow with a grudge against authority, a disciplined man with deep religious convictions, and a devoted husband and father. He also is recognized for his sublime genius as a composer, improviser and organist. Bach was quite the artist, but he viewed himself more as a scientist, setting out to discover the laws of the musical universe.
“With the Grand Rapids Bach Festival, we’re not dusting off the cobwebs of Bach,” said David Lockington, music director of the Grand Rapids Bach Festival. “We’re presenting him as a passionate, living human being.”
An affiliate of the Grand Rapids Symphony, the biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival returns for its 11th season from March 5-11. The Kalamazoo Bach Festival, entering its 70th season, is drawing connections to Bach’s music across genres with an expanded week of programming from May 5-14.
“Simply taking the genius of Bach’s composition at face value is a reason for celebrating Bach,” said James Turner, music director of the Kalamazoo Bach Festival. “Whether it's keyboard, instrumental, vocal or choral, Bach’s outstanding compositional writing is just unbelievable.”
Grand Rapids Bach Festival events will span the breadth of Bach’s expression, starting with a free concert at the Grand Rapids Art Museum and a recital featuring organist Isabella Demers on March 5. This year, the festival also will act as a tribute to its founder, mezzo-soprano Linn Maxwell Keller, who passed away last June.
On March 7, the winner of the Creative Young Keyboard Artists Competition will perform alongside various professional keyboardists. A March 9 concert then focuses on themes of love in Bach’s cantatas — narrative vocal compositions with instrumental accompaniment. The festival closes with Joyful Bach, a concert featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony and Youth Choruses.
This season, the Kalamazoo Bach Festival incorporates the talent of local artists and organizations, including musicians from the Stulberg International String Competition and the Southwest Michigan chapter of the American Guild of Organists. Collaborative events with world roots music group Red Sea Pedestrians and two folk duos will display the similarities and differences between Bach and contemporary genres.
“Many classical music organizations can’t survive on one type of music,” said Cori Somers, executive director of the Kalamazoo Bach Festival. “Bringing different styles together helps audiences understand that all composers and performers have something to communicate — that we all have a universal voice in sharing our art.”
In addition to making the experience more affordable with several free events and student ticket prices, the festival is launching on May 9 a new family initiative with the Kalamazoo Public Library that pairs Bach’s music with bedtime stories. Festivalgoers on May 10 will have the opportunity to explore the inside of the organ and chat over beer. The event also is partnering with Kalamazoo College and Western Michigan University to provide educational opportunities throughout the week.
For the finale on May 14, 90 singers, four guest soloists and a full orchestra will convene onstage to perform Bach’s Mass in B Minor — one of his most beloved works.
Grand Rapids Bach Festival
Various Grand Rapids locations
$25 all access pass
grsymphony.org/bachfest, (616) 454-9451
Kalamazoo Bach Festival
Various Kalamazoo locations
$59 week pass, single tickets available
kalamazoobachfestival.org, (269) 337-7407