Walter Bitner

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BACHanalia 2018

The 12th annual BACHanalia – our city’s annual Bach festival – will be held on Friday, March 16 from 4 – 10 pm at Christ Church Cathedral, 900 Broadway in downtown Nashville. Once a year, musicians from many parts of our community come together to present this unique six-hour concert-without-pause devoted to Sebastian’s music, generously hosted by our friends at the cathedral in their beautiful sanctuary.

BACHanalia is one of the highlights of the musical year in Music City.

Once again this year, I was given a special glimpse of the program in advance of this year’s concert, which I leak to you here, Off The Podium readership. We’re in for a tremendous evening of music-making!

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The Italian Concerto

 

In 1735, when Sebastian was 50 years old, he published his second volume of keyboard works, Clavier-Übung II (“Keyboard Practice II”). It contains two pieces for double-manual harpsichord: Concerto nach Italienischen Gusto (Concerto in the Italian taste, now known at the Italian Concerto, BWV 971), and Ouvertüre nach Französischer Art (Overture in the French Style, or simply the French Overture, BWV 831).

That Sebastian chose to pair these two works in the same publication paid homage to the old tradition (by his time) for composers to seek a harmonious way (or perhaps take sides) between the perceived opposition of French and Italian musical styles – an argument that had been carried on in European musical circles for centuries. This discussion is a part of Sebastian’s œuvre too, and was influenced by the work of his contemporary François Couperin (1668-1733) and his “les Goûts réunis” or “reunited tastes”, which was published in 1724. Although Sebastian and Couperin never met, they corresponded with each other. The subjects of their letters has long been a tantalizing mystery to Bach scholars, as the letters were subsequently used as lids for jam pots and thus destroyed. Since Couperin had died two years before Clavier-Übung II was published, it is possible that in his own way, Sebastian also intended the volume as an homage to Couperin himself – or as a rebuttal or commentary on the various merits of each style .

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Handel’s Messiah at the Nashville Symphony

The Nashville Symphony and the Nashville Symphony Chorus gather onstage moments before a performance of Handel’s Messiah, December 18, 2016, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville (click images to enlarge)

This weekend the Nashville Symphony and the Nashville Symphony Chorus will present Handel’s Messiah, one of the most beloved and most often performed works in the concert repertoire. This season’s performances will be led by American conductor Gary Thor Wedow, who is esteemed for bringing a historically informed approach to opera stagings and performances of choral masterworks throughout North America. It has been exciting to be at the hall this week as the chorus and orchestra prepare for this exciting annual event.

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Christmas Oratorio at West End United Methodist

West End Chancel Choir and Orchestra, Matthew Phelps, conductor, perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio Part 1, BWV 248 ~ December 3, 2017, West End United Methodist Church, Nashville (click images to enlarge)

 

When I first met Dr. Matthew Phelps nearly two years ago, one of the first things he shared with me was his desire to present Sebastian’s Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 at West End during the advent season. I was excited to hear this, since the Christmas Oratorio is rarely performed compared to Sebastian’s other large scale choral works like the Passions and the B minor Mass, and I had never heard it performed live before. So when I found out earlier this fall that it was happening this year, I marked my calendar and made sure I could be there. (more…)

Martin & Sebastian

Martin Luther nails his 95 Theses to the church door ~ 1878 painting by Julius Hübner (1806-1882) click images to enlarge

This week marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This protest against the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church led to the social, cultural, and philosophical revolution we now call the Reformation – which in turn led to many changes in the abilities of governments and religions to control the personal lives of individuals in Western Civilization, among other things.

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Fie, Nay, Prithee John

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) ~ anonymous portrait

Singing canons is a wonderful way to help young singers develop independence, sing harmony and polyphony, and all with material that takes much less time to learn than music cast in more than one part. In strict canon, everyone sings the same part: we all learn the same melody and text together, and once it’s solid split up the group, start singing it at different times, and presto! musical magic.

Canons can be simple enough for very young children to learn in a few minutes or so challenging that professional choirs must exert considerable effort to sing them well. With a broad repertoire of canons on the tip of her tongue, the skilled music teacher is ready to make or teach satisfying music with students of any level, for any occasion, at any time or place.

Over the course of my teaching career I taught dozens of canons to students of all ages: rounds with students beginning in Kindergarten, catches with more experienced singers (usually by third grade). We sang canons about everything: happy and sad canons, silly canons, canons about love, animals, God, food, about music itself. Canons in English, Latin, French, German, Russian. Canons. One of the most important canons I tried to teach to all of my students over the years is the ancient Sumer Is Icumen In, which I have written in detail about here.

Another fabulous canon which I taught to hundreds of students from elementary through high school, and which is the subject of today’s article, is the indignant and difficult “chiding” catch Fie, Nay, Prithee John by the great Henry Purcell. And yes, by teaching this song, I taught my students to swear.

 

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BACHanalia 2017

On Friday, March 31, from 4 – 10 pm, Christ Church Cathedral at 900 Broadway in downtown Nashville proudly presents the 11th Annual BACHanalia. This unique, beloved event is a continuous, six hour concert of our friend Sebastian’s music presented once a year as a gift to the community. Click here for the church’s official announcement of the event. Note the new times! This year’s event will be held from 4 – 10 pm, not 5 – 11 pm as in previous years.

Again this year I was very lucky, and was granted a sneak peak at BACHanalia 2017‘s performers and selections, which I now leak to you here, oh readers of Off The Podium. Warning: Spoilers!

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Sarabande

disputed portrait of our friend Sebastian by Johann Ernst Rentsch the Elder (d. 1723) painted c. 1715, which would make him 30 years old here. Sebastian most likely wrote the cello suites when he was at Köthen (1717-1723)

Our friend Sebastian was born this time of year in 1685 – on March 21 or March 31, depending on whether you recognize Old or New Style (Julian or Gregorian) calendar conventions for commemorating things that happened centuries ago. I have friends who insist that one or other date is correct, but for me it doesn’t matter – for me, every year for many years now I have observed a quiet little personal eleven-day period of reflection on Bach’s music between March 21 and March 31. Each day for eleven days, I set aside some time to both play some of Sebastian’s music (on piano, harpsichord, or lute) and to intentionally listen to some of my favorite recordings of pieces that have touched me deeply.

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Barthold Kujiken with Music City Baroque

Barthold Kujiken

March is Early Music Month, an annual campaign to promote awareness of early music throughout the North American musical community. Early Music Month is promoted and designed by Early Music America, a national organization that facilitates and encourages communication, collaboration, raising awareness, and sharing resources for those interested in historical performance and music before the 19th century.

It’s therefore timely – and no surprise – that our fair Music City has several phenomenal events coming up this month that feature live performances of music from the old repertoires, including both performances by local ensembles and rare visits from acclaimed European musicians.

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The Hallelujah Chorus

The Nashville Symphony and the Nashville Symphony Chorus gather onstage moments before a performance of Händel's Messiah, December 18, 2016, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville

The Nashville Symphony and the Nashville Symphony Chorus gather onstage moments before a performance of Händel’s Messiah, December 18, 2016, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville

Part of a series of articles on
Preparing a School Winter Solstice Performance

This past week the Nashville Symphony performed our annual string of December Messiah concerts. An annual event featuring a different conductor and vision for the performance of this masterwork each year, it is remarkable to me how resilient Händel’s Messiah is, and how much the community here at the symphony -as well as the larger surrounding community of Music City – looks forward to it every year. It’s one of those monuments of the repertoire that has become part of the collective consciousness.

This year’s performance with guest conductor Christopher Warren-Green brought a historically-informed perspective to the performance, with brisk tempi and the incorporation of a theorbist who doubled on baroque guitar to the continuo section. I was thrilled to hear how excited our musicians were about Messiah this year in conversations I had with them (or overheard) during rehearsals. Sitting in the balcony on Sunday afternoon for the final matinee performance, the enthusiasm of the musicians and the audience was palpable. In the exhilaration following the concert I found myself thinking a lot about this remarkable piece of music, and especially one movement in particular – the unique and absolutely one-of-a-kind Hallelujah Chorus – and why and how it occupies such a singular place in our musical culture.

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