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PREVIEW | The Toronto Bach Festival Aims For A Multifaceted Experience Of The Iconic Composer's Music

By Anya Wassenberg on May 14, 2024

L-R: Violinist Adrian Butterfield (Photo courtesy of the artist); The Toronto Bach Festival (Photo: Elana Emer); Soprano Yeree Suh (Photo courtesy of the artist)
L-R: Violinist Adrian Butterfield (Photo courtesy of the artist); The Toronto Bach Festival (Photo: Elana Emer); Soprano Yeree Suh (Photo courtesy of the artist)

The Toronto Bach Festival will be held from May 24 to 26, presenting four concerts and a lecture that offer audiences a chance to experience different facets of Bach’s work.

That includes works for strings to organ to vocal compositions, and a casual performance setting that Bach himself would have appreciated.

We spoke to the Festival Artistic Director John Abberger to take a deep dive into its offerings

The 2023 Toronto Bach Festival (Photo: Elana Emer)
The 2023 Toronto Bach Festival (Photo: Elana Emer)

John Abberger: Festival Details

Opening Night | Game Of Threes (May 24)

Adrian Butterfield is a featured artist for the opening night concert. Violinist, director and conductor Adrian Butterfield is a specialist in period performance of the music composed roughly from 1600 to 1900. He currently serves as Musical Director of the Tilford Bach Festival, Associate Music Director of the London Handel Festival, and Professor of Baroque Violin at the Royal College of Music in London. He leads the London Handel Players and The Revolutionary Drawing Room, and directs and conducts The London Handel Orchestra.

Along with a busy performing career, he is a recording artist. He’s performed on both of Abberger’s own recordings, among many of his own, and with The London Handel Orchestra.

“I really thrilled to be able to invite him to play at the festival this year,” says Abberger.

Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins opens the concert, followed by an Ouverture by Johann Bernhard Bach, a second cousin of Johann Sebastian.

The idea for the central theme of threes was Abberger’s own. “I came up with it. I’ve long wanted to […] to perform this concerto for three violins that we’re doing,” he says. He notes that the piece’s origins were as a work for three harpsichords, and that various versions of it exist with different instrumentation.

“It’s one of Bach’s greatest concerto moments,” he says. “I’ve wanted to do that piece for a while.”

Along with Bach’s work, the concert delves the composers who influenced J.S., such as Vivaldi and Albinoni. Exploring the music that surrounded Bach during his own era, and which influenced him, is a much bigger and ongoing project. “We’re kind of scratching the surface with that,” Abberger says.

While it’s hard to say who listened to who at the time, it is known, as he points out, that Bach possessed Albinoni manuscripts in his personal study.

It ends with the magnificent Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, where the triple concerto is developed into a three-part work that sees violins, violas and cellos each playing an independent part, along with a basso continuo.

“I can just imagine him loving the challenge,” Abberger says. “It’s an extraordinary piece. I kind of built the concert around that.”

It will be the first time Brandenburg No. 3 will be performed at the Festival.

“It’s going to be an interesting concert.”

The Toronto Bach Festival Orchestra will accompany, along with violinists Patricia Ahern and Cristina Zacharias, and oboist John Abberger.

Program in full:

  • Concerto for Three Violins in D major, BWV 1064R by J.S. Bach
  • Ouverture in G minor by Johann Bernhard Bach
  • Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041 by J.S. Bach
  • Concerto for 4 Violins Op.3 No.1 in D major, RV 549 by Antonio Vivaldi
  • Concerto for Oboe in D minor, Op.9 No.2 by Tomasso Albinoni
  • Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G major, BWV 1048 by J.S. Bach
The 2023 Toronto Bach Festival (Photo: Elana Emer)
The 2023 Toronto Bach Festival (Photo: Elana Emer)

Organ Recital | Aaron James (May 25)

Aaron James will perform a recital on Karl Wilhelm organ at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, which Abberger calls one of the city’s best.

Organist and composer Aaron James is a native of Toronto. He earned a BMus from the University of Western Ontario, and then a MMus in Organ Performance and Literature from the Eastman School, followed by a PhD in musicology. He is a fellow of the Canadian College of Organists, and is currently the Director of Music for the Toronto Oratory of St Philip Neri, and a Sessional Lecturer in organ at the University of Toronto.

“We’re very pleased to present a lot of our local talent,” Abberger says. “We’ve seen really great advance sales,” he adds.

Despite the popularity of a very few pieces, Abberger feels that the bulk of Bach’s organ works remain little known. “They are deeply personal works,” he says. “I’m determined to keep presenting it. It’s an important part of any Bach festival.”

The concert includes favourites such as Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, and Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV 547.

As in the program for the vocal concert later in the festival, the organ recital incorporates works by Bach’s predecessors at Leipzig, and his contemporaries. That includes twin interpretations of “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” by Bach (BMV 739) and Buxtehude, along with both Bach’s and Reincken’s take on “An Wasserflüssen Babylon” (“By the Waters of Babylon”).

As Abberger points out, Bach was familiar with Reincken’s work, and probably also with Buxtehude’s competing setting of the same hymn.

“He’s constructed a fantastic program,” notes Abberger.

The 2023 Toronto Bach Festival (Photo: Elana Emer)
The 2023 Toronto Bach Festival (Photo: Elana Emer)

KAFFEEHAUS | Bach’s Hunt Cantata (May 25)

Zimmermann’s Kaffeehaus, a favourite haunt of Johann’s during his Leipzig days, is recreated to present a concert in a casual setting. The idea was launched at last year’s Festival, and quickly became one of its most popular features.

“It was a big success,” notes Abberger, so much so that it led to a change to a bigger venue. “I’ve been working on this for at least five years,” he notes. “I’m very excited at this venue.”

The Kaffeehaus will be recreated at the acoustically friendly and atmospheric Church of the Holy Trinity at Trinity Square. The concert also offers two separate time slots to accommodate the demand.

“I think it’s going to be fantastic.”

Directed by Abberger, the program includes a complete performance of Bach’s “Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd” (Hunt Cantata), BWV 208, along with movements from Brandenburg Concerto No. 1. The international guest artist will be soprano Yeree Suh.

Abberger mentions meeting soprano Yeree Suh while working in Germany about a decade ago. The German-Korean singer is well known as an interpreter of 17th and 18th century repertoire, making her a perfect fit for the occasion.

“She’s a fantastic singer,” he says.

Canadian actor RH Thomson will reprise he role of Herr Zimmermann, with singers Ellen McAteer, soprano; Charles Daniels, tenor; Jesse Blumberg, bass, accompanied by the Toronto Bach Festival Orchestra, with students from the Collegium Musicum, University of Toronto.

Vocal Concert: How Brightly Shines (May 26)

“The vocal music is of course the pinnacle of Bach’s achievement,” says Abberger. He notes that the vocal works Bach composed during his time in Leipzig were those he would perform over and over throughout his career.

“He wrote [some] of his most sophisticated chorale settings,” Abberger says. “Often it’s the soprano that carries the chorale tune,” he explains, “the voices underneath adding texture. He did this better than anyone.”

Yeree Suh is joined in the concert by soprano Sinéad White, altos Daniel Taylor and Nicholas Burns, tenors Charles Daniels and Shane Hanson, and basses Jesse Blumberg and Martin Gomes, with the Toronto Bach Festival Orchestra.

As with the organ recital, the program includes other composers. “It’s also [about] Bach’s predecessors at Leipzig,” Abberger says.

The concert includes two distinct settings of the traditional carol “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (“How brightly shines the Morningstar”), one by Bach (BMV 1, an earlier version than in the organ recital), and one by Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor at the Thomas Kirche in Leipzig.

A piece by Johann Schelle, who was Thomaskantor from 1677 to 1701, just before Kuhnau, titled “Gott, sende dein Licht” (“God, send your light”), is also featured. Bach’s “Wer da gläubet und getauft wird”, BWV 37 (“Whoever believes and is baptised”) rounds out the program.

Lecture | Beyond Bach: Music and Everyday Life in the Eighteenth Century (May 26)

Along with the music, there’s an opportunity to learn. Dr. Andrew Talle’s Beyond Bach: Music and Everyday Life in the Eighteenth Century is also the title of his 2017 book.

He is associate professor and coordinator at Northwestern University, where he also earned a Bachelor’s degree in cello performance, along with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in linguistics. At Northwestern, his research revolves around the musical culture of J.S. Bach’s era.

Talle’s latest work looks at the lives of ordinary people during the time of Bach, when the now-revered composer was one of several in the city of Leipzig, and throughout Germany. His research took him through a mountain of documentation, including personal diaries, accounting ledgers, works of art, and much more. He looks at the lives of musicians, and also the amateur performers, instrument builders, patrons of the arts, and others.

His lecture will focus on a professional organist and his life of collecting Bach’s works, while juggling work at an orphanage, a fiancée, and private students. The second part of his lecture will look at the music composed by two teenage girls who weren’t at all interested in the work of Bach.

  • Find more information about the Toronto Bach Festival, including Festival passes and single tickets, [HERE].

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