The annual Boulder Bach Festival has been an important part of the city’s classical music scene for 30 years. But this year the Finale Concert has a new look.
In the past, the last concert of the weeklong festival has typically featured a major choral work: one of the passions (St. Matthew and St. John), the B-minor mass, or possibly the Magnificat with some other work.
This year, however, new festival director Rick Erickson has chosen a different kind of program: Instead of a single major work, he is venturing into what he calls the “heart” of Bach’s work as a composer, the cantatas. Two of the cantatas will be performed, along with a motet (for chorus without orchestra) and one of the always-popular Brandenburg concertos for orchestra.
In his duties as Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Bach presided over the performance of a cantata during the service every Sunday. In pursuit of those duties, he wrote more than 200 sacred cantatas that have survived, and doubtless many others that have been lost. There are cantatas for every Sunday of the Lutheran liturgical calendar.
“The cantatas are at the heart of Bach,” Erickson says. “I’ve been so fortunate in my life to spend such a huge part of my time with the cantatas. This is the week-to-week life of Bach, and there is the huge variety of expression [in the cantatas].”
Erickson also sees the cantatas as a good training for the chorus, since it gives the singers an opportunity to focus on specific challenges.
“I really wanted to avoid for this first year something like the B-minor Mass or the St. John or the St. Matthew passion,” he says. “I want to be able to focus, in these marvelous cantatas, on some very specific vocal issues with the choir. All of the more extended works grow out of the cantata language.”
The cantatas Erickson chose for the Finale Concert are No. 187, Es wartet alles auf dich (All things wait upon thee), written for the seventh Sunday after Trinity; and No. 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deeds and life), composed for the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Both cantatas conform to the standard practice in Leipzig during Bach’s lifetime by combining chorus, soloists and a small orchestra, much as the longer works do. Each opens with a movement for chorus and orchestra, followed by a series of recitatives and arias for the soloists.
Both cantatas also end with a setting of a chorale tune for chorus and orchestra. These simple movements seem musically anti-climatic to audiences accustomed to the transcendent finales of Romantic music, but for the congregation at St. Thomas, they were central to the religious experience of the service.
Chorale tunes and texts were familiar to the congregants, since they were sung communally during the service, just as hymns are today. As a result, it was in these concluding movements that the individual religious experience of the people in the pews found expression in the work being performed by the church musicians.
Unlike the cantatas, Bach’s six surviving motets were probably written not for the weekly Sunday services but for special occasions, such as funerals. All are written for multiple voice parts with no more than a continuo accompaniment — that is, support for the bass line, including a keyboard instrument.
Because the voices constitute the entire texture, the motets are especially challenging for the singers.
This is especially true of the motet Erickson has chosen, “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden” (Praise the Lord, all ye heathens), as the singers’ parts are especially virtuosic.
If programming shorter pieces instead of a single major work constitutes a new direction for the festival, Erickson is ready.
“I really want to see what the interest and what the natural evolution of the festival might be,” he says. “I want to see how we can find really strong, exciting directions that make a lot of sense.”
Both the cantatas and the larger works are likely to be part of that new direction.
“I hope we can continue bringing cantatas to life, as well as, of course, the larger-scale works.”
But for now, his focus is on this year’s performances.
“I’m excited about the performers, our artists who will be with us,” he says. “I think we’re going to have a grand time. I’m really looking forward to it.”