Bach in town

Why Bach’s cantatas can change your life

Music director and conductor Jeffrey Thomas, surrounded by the American Bach Soloists.

Music director and conductor Jeffrey Thomas, surrounded by the American Bach Soloists.

Ask a kid who doesn’t know classical music to name a composer. Johann Sebastian Bach’s name is likely to come up (along with the names of Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms). Ask a professional music historian, and Bach’s name is likely on the short list, too. Yet, even though his name almost always rings a bell, most of us are familiar with only part of Bach’s work.

Bach’s instrumental music is easy to find at concerts, on disc, mixed into commercials and on musical breaks during National Public Radio newscasts. But those who study Bach usually feel the heart of his music lies in his choral music for the church, the cantatas in particular. Bach wrote hundreds of cantatas, typically 20 to 30 minutes long, sometimes at the rate of one per week. An unknown number are lost, but about 250 survive. They’re a vast and varied tapestry of music, including much of Bach’s best writing.

Although highly regarded, Bach’s cantatas are music that Sacramento residents generally have had to leave town to hear sung at a professional level. Bach’s instrumental concertos are performed more often, but performances on period instruments—the kind of violins and harpsichords that Bach would have played, creating the sort of sound he knew—are uncommon locally, as well.

That’s why the new Davis concert series by the American Bach Soloists, a top-notch early-music group from the Bay Area, is so unusual. Quite simply, there hasn’t been a series like this in the Sacramento area for years, if ever. The concerts will be very different from the blockbuster Messiah performances by the American Bach Soloists at the Mondavi Center, which draw huge audiences. This new series will take place in a much smaller and more appropriate venue for Bach’s cantatas, the Davis Community Church, before an audience of a few hundred.

Although the cantatas are “church music” (as opposed to “theater music”), they are nonetheless little dramas or parables in their own spiritual way. “Essentially, you have characters, though they are almost never named,” explained Jeffrey Thomas, music director for the American Bach Soloists. The characters are everyday people dealing, through words and music, with life’s major issues—ranging from joyful declarations of faith to dark perspectives, including the approach of death.

“If you’re interested in being taken from one place to another by a piece of music, the cantatas are really effective,” Thomas said. “In each cantata, there’s some sort of catharsis, some sort of evolution. Each one is a little journey.”

Close attention rewards the listener, because Bach was a master at layering content. The more you concentrate, the more you perceive. “Bach would superimpose [familiar church] tunes on another text to amplify what the words say,” Thomas explained. “He had the ability to impose meaning upon meaning, to bring about a synergy of meanings. This is the thing my students at UC Davis find most fascinating about Bach. They really do find this very cool.”

The cantatas were not “chart toppers” in Bach’s lifetime, and they get minimal airplay on classical radio nowadays. As a modern Californian, you have to seek them out in order to know them. But mass acclaim has never been the primary determinant of any music’s quality. This series is an opportunity to sample some great music that you won’t find elsewhere in this region.

The series begins on January 24 with a program of four early church cantatas by Bach, including Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland and Christ lag in Todesbanden. On March 7, the group presents Bach concertos for more than one instrument, including violins, harpsichords and oboes. Expect flashy playing as the competing soloists show off their chops. The series closes on May 23 with a program of religious choral works by English composers from the 1500s and 1600s set alongside thematically similar modern works by Arvo Pärt, John Tavener and John Paynter.

All concerts will be held at 8 p.m. at the Davis Community Church, located at 412 C Street in Davis. Series tickets are $51-$78. Individual concert tickets are $10-$30. Visit or call (415) 621-7900 for more information.