The Toronto Bach Festival returns to the city from May 26 to 28, 2023 with a range of concert experiences to offer baroque music lovers. The program includes works performed by visiting soloist Steven Devine, including the Concerto in D minor for harpsichord, and, in a rare performance, the Concerto in C major for two harpsichords.
Last year’s festival drew record crowds. “We moved to a new venue, which gave us a lot more capacity,” festival Artistic Director John Abberger explains. “Our overall numbers were much higher than they ever had been.”
What is it about the centuries old music of Johann Sebastian Bach that still resonates with modern audiences?
“It’s isn’t very easy to answer, but I’ll be happy to nibble at it,” Abberger begins. “There is something about Bach’s music that is so powerful in how it speaks to people. I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t find this music moving,” he says.
It reaches beyond the expected audiences in Europe and North America to touch the world. “I find it remarkably universal,” he says. “That’s why Bach is a great composer.” It’s much more than can be quantified by scientific analysis. “It speaks to us without words.”
As he points out, you don’t have to be a musicologist or baroque specialist to simply enjoy the music. “I feel that in a multicultural city like Toronto, it builds community.”
The Toronto Bach Festival
Guest Artist: Keyboardist & Conductor Steven Devine
English keyboardist Steven Devine is the festival’s guest artist, and he’ll be directing the opening concert, as well as performing The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 in its entirety. It’s his Toronto Bach Festival debut.
Devine is the Music Director of the New Chamber Opera, Oxford, Principal Keyboard of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and Artistic Advisor of the York Early Music Festival, among his many positions. He’s conducted the Academy of Ancient Music and BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Victoria Baroque in BC, and Montreal’s Arion Baroque Ensemble, among many others. He has an extensive discography, including acclaimed 2019 recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 and 2.
Abberger’s association with Steven Devine goes back several years when they were both teaching a course on the West Coast. They’ve played together subsequently. “He’s a fantastic player and a great spirit as a musician.” Abberger invited him to the festival as soon as he was available. “I’ve long wanted to program this D minor Concerto,’ he says. As he points out, much of Bach’s repertoire for harpsichord, as we know it now, was most likely written for other instruments. “This D minor piece is one of the few pieces that seems to have been written for the harpsichord.”
Naturally, he wanted a top tier harpsichordist to perform. Steven, he says, was enthusiastic about the idea, and wanted to add the Well-Tempered Clavier as a complete performance.
“I’m really looking forward to working with him and having him at the festival,” he says.
The program includes four concerts spread over three venues in Toronto. Bach’s output includes works for orchestra, keyboard, and choral ensembles. “Every year we try to have those three pillars represented,” Abberger says.
Friday, May 26; Church of the Holy Trinity
Steven Devine directs as he plays the Concerto in D minor for harpsichord. He’ll then be joined by Christopher Bagan for the Concerto in C major for two harpsichords. Also on the program, festival concertmaster Julia Wedman performs the Concerto in E major for violin, and Bach’s Italian Concert in a new transcription, arranged and performed by Artistic Director John Abberger on the oboe.
The Well-Tempered Clavier
Saturday, May 27 | Part I at 12 p.m.; Part II at 2 p.m.; Eastminister United Church
Festival guest artist Steven Devine performs the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 in full. While we thnk of them as a complete set nowadays, the preludes and fugues were actually composed and revised over several years. They were assembled into a single manuscript in 1722, just before Bach’s departure for Leipzig.
Saturday, May 27; The Concert Hall
The Zimmermannsches Kaffeehaus, or Café Zimmermann, at 14 Katharinenstrasse in Leipzig, was owned by one Gottfried Zimmermann. It was a frequent haunt of J.S. during his time in the city, and the venue where he premiered many of his non-religious works, including, not surprisingly, the Coffee Cantata. John Abberger directs, and well known Canadian actor R.H. Thomson makes his festival debut in the role of Zimmermann, in a casual performance. The program includes Coffee Cantata, BWV 211; Concerto for Violin and Oboe by Telemann; Concerto for Four Violins, Op. 3, No. 7 by Vivaldi, performed by Rebecca Genge, soprano; James Gilchrist, tenor; Jonathon Adams, bass, and The Toronto Bach Festival Orchestra.
R.H. Thomson has worked with Abberger previously via Tafelmusik. “He’s a great Canadian artist,” he says. “I’ve had the privilege of working with him on a number of occasions.”.
The Kaffeehaus concert puts a spotlight on Bach’s life and creation. “It allows us to contextualize the instrumental music and the secular vocal music,” Abberger says. “It’s much more logical to put them into a more informal atmosphere. We hope it would attract people who might be less inclined to come to a more formal concert hall,” he says. It’s a first for the festival. “We’re creating something new.”
Sunday, May 28; Eastminster United Church
John Abberger directs in a program that includes the very first cantatas Bach performed in the churches of Leipzig shortly after his arrival there. It was meant to be an auspicious beginning, and it launched a period of remarkable productivity for the composer. He wrote more than 100 cantatas over the subsequent four years. The program features Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75, and Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, BWV 76, with sopranos Ellen McAteer and Sinéad White, altos Daniel Taylor and Nicholas Burns, tenors James Gilchrist and Cory Knight, and basses Jonathan Adams and Adam Kuiack, supported by the Toronto Bach Festival Orchestra.
Bach’s vocal works are his least known to the general public, although, as Abberger points out, his instrumental pieces actually represent the smallest portion of his compositional output. “You haven’t heard 72.83 percent of Bach,” he says. “There’s a whole lot of other music that doesn’t get played often.”
He notes that the religious aspect of his choral works may be off-putting to some. “But, you don’t have to engage with that,” he says.
Annual Bach Lecture | J.S. Bach: Cantor, Capellmeister, Director
Sunday, May 28; Eastminster United Church
Daniel R. Melamed, Professor of Musicology at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana delivers a talk that focuses on the pivot in Bach’s focus when he moved to Leipzig from instrumental and keyboard works to vocal works for the church.
“We’re looking forward to this really interesting point in Bach’s life when he left the court in Köthen and took the position in Leipzig,” Abberger explains. While little is known about Bach’s private life, a letter of his exists that describes — and complains about — his move to Leipzig. However, while he felt forced to turn from instrumental music to cantatas for church, it marked the beginning of an extremely fruitful period in his career.
“[It was] an extraordinary creative outpouring,” he says, noting that the change came about within a year. “It’s unbelievable, the music he wrote within the space of six or eight years.”
Festival passes are sold out, but single tickets are still available. Tickets and more information [HERE].
Get the daily arts news straight to your inbox.
Sign up for the Ludwig van Daily — classical music and opera in five minutes or less HERE.
- PREVIEW | Opera Atelier Presents Gluck’s Groundbreaking Orpheus And Eurydice - September 27, 2023
- INTERVIEW | Augustin Hadelich Talks About His Music And Toronto Concert October 13 - September 26, 2023
- FEATURE | Beijing Music Festival’s 25th Anniversary Celebrates Fusion of East and West - September 25, 2023