Bach in the Sac

Four local (Davis, actually) events celebrating the composer will change you

The Kanye West of classical music.

The Kanye West of classical music.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s music is beautifully layered, intricate and symmetrical. Deeply religious and musically transcendent. Hugely influential over centuries, yet seldom “popular.” And, at times, almost forgotten—sometimes for decades.

Bach wrote music that’s seriously informed by sadness, during an era (1685-1750) distant from our own. He spent time in jail, after a disagreement with his boss. His first wife died after some 13 years of marriage. Of the 20 children that he fathered (by two wives), only 10 lived past infancy. In old age, he slowly went blind, as his style fell out of fashion. Yet faith and the assurance of ultimate joy are the common denominators in his music.

He was the supreme practitioner of the art of fugue, a prolific musician who many composers during the 1800s and 1900s—and many listeners today, in the digital age—continue to regard with awe.

But great art doesn’t always get its due, particularly in a city somewhat overpopulated with politicians, lawyers, real-estate speculators, assorted gamblers and others rooted in the material world.

Typically, the Sacramento region hosts a paltry pair of professional “all-Bach” concerts in any given year—usually presented by the American Bach Soloists, a Bay Area group that offers a series in Davis.

But 2009 is different. The planets have lined up in conjunction during March. There are four substantial all-Bach events on the local calendar—all of them in Davis—offering a cross section of his voluminous output (or at least the portion that survives; who knows how many scores were lost in the late 1700s?).

It makes for the most concentrated opportunity that local audiences have had in at least 20 years to “bask in Bach”—perhaps for the first time.

Attend all three of these concerts (and a fourth in May), listen to the pre-concert talks, stay focused, and you’ll be changed.

This Sacramento “Bach Conjunction” opened on March 1, when pianist Angela Hewitt played Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a major keyboard work, at the UC Davis Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.

The modern piano did not exist in Bach’s time and, frankly, we believe that to fully scope out what the composer was doing, you should eventually hear these variations on an earlier instrument, like a harpsichord or clavier. But Hewitt (a Canadian) is a formidable interpreter and one of the world’s best pianists. Her 1999 recording on Hyperion of the Goldberg Variations is a landmark.

Here’s what else lies ahead:

March 14: The Academy of Ancient Music performs the Brandenburg Concertos in Jackson Hall at the Mondavi Center.

Bach offered these six “Concertos for several instruments” to the margrave of Brandenburg in 1721, hoping to get a job. The margrave, alas, hired somebody else, and Bach’s concertos were set aside in the margrave’s library and apparently forgotten for decades.

But after they were “discovered” in the 19th century, they were widely played, and currently hold something akin to pop-music status—scores of ensembles have recorded the Brandenburgs.

The Academy of Ancient Music is a period-instrument ensemble, organized in 1973 by Christopher Hogwood, which has made more than 250 recordings. Since 2006, the group has been led by harpsichordist Richard Egarr. They have a new recording of the Brandenburgs to be released in March on the Harmonia Mundi label, featuring one player per part, in a return to the original “chamber” conception.

March 16: While Bach’s instrumental music gets more radio airplay, and the Brandenburg Concertos will undoubtedly draw a bigger crowd, those who revere Bach generally believe that the core of his music resides in his choral compositions, including the 200-plus cantatas that he wrote over several decades. The cantatas generally run around 20 minutes, and were mostly written to be performed in churches.

The four cantatas on this program, performed by the American Bach Soloists, can be considered minidramas, grounded in religious texts. The cantatas to be heard are Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140; Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) BWV 80; Jesu, der du meine Seele, BWV 78; and Ich habe genug, BWV 82. (The American Bach Soloists have recorded all four; you can hear them online for free at The American Bach Soloists are a professional group based in San Francisco, now in their 20th year, and noted for their lean, clear, “period” performances.

March 22: Bach was born on March 21, 1685, but on the 22nd of this March, the Sacramento Choral Society will celebrate his birthday at the Mondavi Center. Featured will be a variety of works (with projected supertitles providing the words), including the Magnificat, the Lutheran Mass No. 4 in G major, excerpts from St. John Passion and Cantata No. 11, and the well-known Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and Komm süsser Tod.

The Sacramento Choral Society is a 150-voice community group, which will provide a significantly different sonic experience than the American Bach Soloists, who will use far fewer singers and period instruments in their cantata program. Conductor Donald Kendrick is a longtime director of choral music programs at Sacramento State; last year, he took the Choral Society to perform at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

One further note: Bach’s music tends to sound better and better the older you become. As you get nicked and grooved by life’s trials and detours—an all too common experience nowadays—this music from the 1700s makes more and more sense. And there’s no substitute for experiencing Bach’s music in person. Radio and recordings are all well and good, but to really “get it,” you need to be present in the flesh.