The Bach must go on: UMass Bach Festival & Symposium returns, this time in virtual format

  • Elizabeth Chang, a principal organizer and founder of the UMass Bach Festival. UMass Dept. of Music and Dance

  • Celebrated cellist Matt Haimovitz, who specializes in Bach’s music and formerly taught at UMass. UMass Dept. of Music and Dance

  • UMass bassist Salvatore Macchia. UMass Dept. of Music and Dance

  • Erinn Knyt, a UMass professor of music history, is one of the panelists. UMass Dept. of Music & Dance

  • Organizers of UMass Bach Festival & Symposium say the pandemic has forced some changes to the 2021 event but that Bach’s music, and the university’s commitment to the festival, meant the event could not be postponed. Elias Gottlob Haussmann

Staff Writer
Published: 4/22/2021 8:11:52 AM

Over the last several years, the University of Massachusetts Amherst has become a key location for a biennial celebration of one of the most seminal figures in Western music: Johann Sebastian Bach.

Since April 2015, the university has hosted three festivals featuring dozens of musicians performing numerous selections of Bach’s work, as well as symposiums led by visiting and UMass music scholars that examine the ways the Baroque composer’s music continues to resonate today.

Now that April 2021 has arrived, it’s time for the fourth Bach Festival & Symposium to take place — though because of a little problem called COVID-19, the events this year will be presented virtually.

Safety restrictions at the university also mean no vocal music can be part of the festival, and the instrumental performances themselves consist of small ensembles, some duets and two soloists. Past festivals have included productions of some of Bach’s largest compositions, such as “Mass in B Minor,” which involved a full orchestra, a choir and numerous soloists, but that’s a no-go this year.

Even so, organizers say this year’s festival offers a varied range of Bach’s repertoire, including some new interpretations of his work, as well as the debut of original compositions inspired by Bach. In addition, the festival, which started Tuesday with a few shows and will continue through this weekend, will conclude with a live-streamed performance by renowned cellist Matt Haimovitz, who previously lived in the Pioneer Valley and taught at UMass in the early 2000s.

Meanwhile, Bach scholars from UMass and numerous other universities will host a number of virtual discussions on the composer and his music on April 24 from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Classical and opera singer William Hite, a UMass professor of voice, has been one of the principal organizers of the Bach Festival since its inception in 2015. He says he and fellow planners faced a struggle last year after the pandemic set in, not knowing if the new festival, an event that takes months to arrange, could be staged — or if it should even take place.

“We did talk about not doing it, but that discussion didn’t actually last that long,” said Hite, who’s performed at all of the previous Bach Festivals. “We had a great turnout for the festival in 2019, some real success, and we felt like we’d lose momentum if we didn’t do something this year.”

Yet it eventually became clear that a live festival in 2021 would not be an option, and for reasons beyond losing momentum or visibility, waiting until 2022 was not desirable either, Hite said. “So we had to consider doing it online this year, which involved a new set of challenges.”

Making it work

But after UMass violinist Elizabeth Chang, another key festival organizer, solicited feedback in early January from faculty members in the university’s Department of Music & Dance, some ideas for an online event began to take shape, Hite says.

The focus is on smaller, more intimate performances — almost all of which have been prerecorded and filmed at Bezanson Recital Hall, with safety protocols in place such as face masks, socially distanced positions for the musicians, and the use of air filters and other means.

For instance, Hite says UMass flutist Cobus du Toit attached a small screening device, called a Win-D-Fender, to his flute to minimize the amount of his breath escaping around the instrument’s mouthpiece.

“We had to meet some very tough safety protocols just to be able to use Bezanson for the recording,” Hite said.

These and other performances can be viewed daily on YouTube at 7:30 p.m. through Friday. Tuesday’s opening presentation of Bach’s “Musical Offering,” was the largest of the festival: UMass students with the Opus One Chamber Orchestra, a small string ensemble, were joined by Chang on violin, fellow faculty members Edward Arron on cello and du Toit on flute, and guest artist Gregory Hayes on harpsichord.

On Wednesday, Chang performed the “Partita in D minor for solo violin,” a work known as a Chaconne, after which she was joined by Jazer Giles (electronic music) for the debut of UMass bassist and composer Salvatore Macchia’s “Grounds for Violin and Electronics,” a piece he wrote “expressly to be paired with the Chaconne,” according to program notes.

Some additional experiments will take place Thursday as a saxophonist, a trombone player, a bassist, two percussionists, and a dancer, Lauren Cox, perform. Cox and Jonathan Hulting-Cohen, on baritone saxophone, will open the evening with “Prelude,” a piece they’ve created that was inspired by Bach’s prelude to his “Solo Cello Suite No. 1.”

And on Friday, Kathryn Lockwood on viola joins du Toit on flute for two Bach compositions; a piece by György Kurtág is also part of the evening’s presentation.

The music wraps up Sunday, April 25 at 3 p.m. when Haimovitz, perfoming live from his home in Montreal, plays two Bach pieces for solo cello; he’ll also debut two original compositions, by David Sanford (of Mount Holyoke College) and Luna Pearl Woolf (a 2021 Grammy nominee). The concert will be followed by a Q & A moderated by Chang and Michael Sakamoto, director of programming for the UMass Fine Arts Center.

While all other events at the festival can be seen for free, the Haimovitz performance costs $10 (it’s free for UMass students). Visit fac.umass.edu for more information.

Hite says he’s hopeful these variations to the usual format of the Bach Festival — solo performances, original compositions inspired by Bach such as the dance and saxophone piece by Lauren Cox and Jonathan Hulting-Cohen — can be carried forward when the event returns live in 2023.

“These pieces likely wouldn’t be taking place without the pandemic,” he noted. “That’s one small silver lining.”

In addition, three outdoor “pop-up” performances of Bach pieces, such as Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, are scheduled in downtown Amherst on Saturday and Sunday, April 24-25. These mini-concerts, to be performed by professional and student string players, take place April 24 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the Amherst Common and at 1 p.m. on the lawn of the Amherst History Museum; and at 2:30 p.m. on April 25 on the front patio of Amherst Works.

Meanwhile, the 15 panelists at the April 24 Bach Symposium, including three from Great Britain and another from Germany, will discuss a number of topics in five different sessions. Keynote speakers are Robert Marshall of Brandeis University and Scott Burnham of CUNY Graduate Center and Princeton University. More details about the symposium can be found at umass.edu/bach/symposium.

Visit umass.edu/bach for more information on all the events for the 2021 Bach Festival.




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