Beyond Bach

Boulder Bach Festival looks beyond its namesake

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly


The Boulder Bach Festival is branching out.

This year´s festival weeks opens with a concert of instrumental concertos by Antonio Vivaldi (Feb. 18 in Boulder and Feb. 22 in Longmont); and a second concert, featuring Johann Sebastian Back choral music (Feb. 22 in Denver and Feb. 23 in Boulder), opens with an oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello (festival programs at

If that seems surprising for a Bach festival, you may have missed just just how much the festival has grown in the past few years.

Founded in 1981, the festival originally focused on annual performances of Bach´s major sacred choral works: the St. John passions, the Mass in B Minor and the “Magnificat.” And while masterworks are still very much on the mind of festival director Zachery Carrettin, the festival has expanded from one or two concerts during festival week to nearly a year-long seasons.

“We have festival week, and that has been the tradition for 33 years,” Carrettin says. “We are continuing that tradition, which centers around the great masterworks of Johann Sebastian Bach. But we are expanding the seasons throughout the year to include more concerts, from solo to chamber to orchestral.”

With expanded programming comes an expanded view of Bach. One element of that is presenting a wider range of Bach’s sacred music, such as this year’s choral concert featuring three cantatas and a motet.

“My predecessor, Rick Erickson, introduced the cantatas to this festival,” Carrettin notes. “The cantatas can each be considered a masterwork, and the Orchestra (Feb. 13). He programmed Vivaldi as one of Bach’s important Italian influences.

“The finale to our concertos concert is [Vivaldi’s] fourviolin concerto in B minor,” he says.

“Bach transcribed that concerto for four harpsichords, and it was one of dozens of Vivaldi concertos that Bach either copied by hand or transcribed for different instruments.”

A curiosity of the all-Vivaldi program is that the concertos are all in minor keys. Carrettin thought about adding a concerto in major, just for variety.

“But why not present a program that features an excess of deep longing and yearning?” he asks. “I think the minor modes have such a diverse palette of emotional content, especially when there are the moments of the major key.”

As for the Marcello concerto that opens the program of sacred choral works, Carrettin chose it for two reasons.

“This is a very popular concerto, and Bach created his own version by heavily ornamenting all of the movements, and in the most amazing manner,” he says. “But the idea of starting the program with that [concerto] has to do with the way we are ending, with Cantata 131, ‘From the Depths I Call to You,’ which features the oboe as dominant voice in the music.”

Between those two works, the program will feature two more cantatas — No. 196, which may have been written for Bach’s wedding to Maria Barbara Bach, and No. 150, which will be performed as a chamber cantata for vocal soloists in place of chorus — and the double-chorus motet “Come, Jesus, Come,” which is Carrettin’s favorite piece by Bach.

“I picked the motet for purely selfish reasons,” he admits. “It’s an absolutely extraordinary composition, almost a personal calling out to God.”

The final work of the choral concert, Cantata 131, was chosen to wrap up the whole festival. “The final chorus is nothing short of amazing,” Carrettin explains.

“It has a four-minute crescendo of activity and of harmonic build that I think is the perfect culmination of both our programs. The final build, which is so enormous and complex, is about being freed from all of our transgressions, and all in the minor key until finally the last chord [in major], when there’s the promise of being forgiven. On the last chord there’s absolute stillness and radiance.”