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Bach Festival Commemorates Five Years

By Leah Lavigne

The Middlebury Bach Festival celebrates its fifth anniversary April 24-26 with an original and exciting presentation of musical ensembles and styles celebrating the life and work of legendary organist and composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Founded and organized by singer and Director of Music at The Congregational Church of Middlebury Jessica Allen and Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities Jeff Buettner, the Festival has proven itself a smash success and treasured staple of the College musical calendar since its inception in 2011.

This year’s array of events, featuring celebrated guest conductor and Artistic and Music Director of the American Bach Soloists Jeffrey Thomas, are marked by increased student participation in featured roles as well as an ambitious spectrum of musical colors showcasing the versatility of Bach’s work across instruments and ensembles.

The Festival kicks off on Friday, April 24 in Mead Chapel with the award-winning Axiom Brass Quintet, a group representing the second year of collaboration between the Bach Festival and the Performing Arts Series. Their program, ‘Sacred Brass,’ features works inspired by or written for the church by Bach, as well as Palestrina, Albinoni, Stephenson, Byrd, Tchaikovsky and Gabrieli.

Not since 1999 has a group of brass instruments taken the spotlight in the Performing Arts Series, and the exuberant sounds of Axiom Brass also represent the first large brass feature in the Festival’s history. Composed of two trumpets, a trombone, a French horn and a tuba, the group recently performed in the Dominican Republic, Germany, Portugal, Spain, South Korea and Japan, released three albums and consistently receives praise for their musicality and technical ability. Tickets are $25 for the public, $20 for College ID holders and $6 for students through the Box Office.

“Friday night there’s this huge Brass sound in Mead Chapel and on Saturday night there’s a much more detail-oriented intricate and delicate sound that we’ll hear in the Concert Hall,” Buettner said. “Both concerts feature the perfect repertoires, ensembles and acoustic spaces for those ensembles.”

Two information sessions providing context for the Festival Concert will be offered on Saturday, April 25 in MCA 125, including “Chant in the Organ Works of J.S. Bach” at 10 a.m. by guest lecturer and Professor Emeritus of Music and Fine Arts at Saint Michael’s College Dr. William Tortolano and “Rhetoric of Early Cantatas of J.S. Bach” at 11 a.m. by guest conductor Jeffrey Thomas. Both are free and open to the public.

Additionally, a carillon recital by carillonneur George Matthew, Jr. will be audible on the Mead Chapel lawn at 3 p.m., and classical guitarist and Affiliate Artist Eric Despard will perform at 51 Main at 6 p.m., further transporting Bach’s music into the larger community.

Saturday night’s Festival Concert heavily features Thomas, who chose two of the three early Bach cantatas to comprise the second half of the evening.

The concert will open with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, No. 5, selected by Buettner for its celebration of instrumental soloists, including violinist Emily Luan ’15. The remainder of the concert, conducted by Thomas, includes three of Bach’s early cantatas performed in an engaging combination of solo instruments, vocal quartet and full chorus with ensemble accompaniment.

After opening with Funeral Cantata BWV 106, which includes the recorder, an instrument common in Bach’s music but appearing for the first time in the Festival’s history, the following Cantata for Jubilate BWV 12 will offer a thematic and stylistic shift that fits tightly in the middle of the presentation before making way for Cantata for Palm Sunday BWV 182, an enchanting meditation on the entrance of the King of Heaven including a choreographed dance scene. For the first time, these cantatas will feature student soloists in a vocal quartet.

“It’s a mission of the Bach Festival to include students as much as possible,” Buettner said. “The College Choir has always been a part of that, as well as a group of student instrumentalists. It’s a specialized repertoire and it’s very challenging, and the big difference this year is that we have five student singers in featured solo positions, as well as four violinists.”

The Collegium, which started during the 2013-2014 academic year, began as an outlet for College Choir members desiring an immersive, intimate and independent opportunity to pursue intricate renaissance music and operate as a small ensemble. Most recently, the Collegium – consisting of Buettner as well as Lisa Wooldridge ’16, Annie Beliveau ’18, Zac Lounsbury ’16 and Tevan Goldberg ’18, has performed a mixture of sacred and secular renaissance music, both on the College Choir tour to Washington D.C. over spring break and as an opening act for the keynote address of the spring student symposium.

For the first time in the Festival’s history, each of the students in the Collegium will be featured as part of a solo vocal quartet during the Saturday night Festival Concert, particularly during the Funeral Cantata 106. Additionally, Concert Choir member Erica Furgiuele ’15 will join Wooldridge and Beliveau as featured soloists on the concert closer, Cantata for Palm Sunday 182.

“We wanted to include this small group of vocalists because it matches the size of an ensemble Bach might have used for some of his music,” Buettner said. “These singers are interested in devoting their efforts to this music and they’re capable of performing it.”

Third-time Bach Festival participant Wooldridge is excited to embrace a more active role in the Festival.

“I’ve been more involved and confident with the music,” she said. “Bach is predictable once you’ve done it enough times, which makes it fun as you keep practicing his works,. I think that’s helping with being a soloist in this concert.”

Student musicians featured on the cantatas include violinists Bree Baccaglini ’15, Rita Pfeiffer ’15 and Gloria Breck ’18, cellist Davis Woolworth ’15 and organist Goldberg.

“The contrasts between the Friday and Saturday events are an exciting commentary on the versatility of instruments within Bach’s work,” Buettner said. “The trumpet appears as a solo instrument with a very specific function in our Saturday night concert, but the ensemble and the orchestra is relatively small and more similar to what Bach would have used in performances of his early cantatas, so it’s a completely different color.”

On Sunday, April 26 at 3 p.m. in the MCA Concert Hall, a chamber music concert featuring Buettner and four colleagues singing the motet “Jesu, meine Freude” will be joined by two keyboard works played by Breck and Goldberg on piano in a combination of ancient and modern approaches. Though the motet is usually sung by choir with chamber orchestra, the performance of the piece as a cantata in itself with one voice per part adds yet another color to the Festival to close the program.

The establishment of the Bach Festival as a musical institution at the College is a testament to the truly timeless nature of Bach, and its increasing ambition and opportunities for solo participation allow a focused musical immersion usually missing from a liberal arts college experience.

“Bach is not something you hear very often on this campus, because most of our vocal music is either pop, modern or classical, and Baroque is something you just don’t get,” Wooldridge said. This is a significant piece of music and it’s impressive that we’re able to pull this off every year, It’s something that you don’t see that often at a school like Middlebury. It’s a really unique opportunity.”

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