Johann Sebastian Bach died in 1750. But this summer, he’s back on tour.
In the process, he’ll revisit a few of his old haunts, and stop in to some spots where other famous composers made their mark. It’s all courtesy of Naples’ Bach Ensemble, a community-based not-for-profit choral group that’s heading into its 10th year of performing.
This isn’t the first time the Bach Ensemble has gone on a European vacation. Nor is the trip the only special plan the Bach Ensemble has made to honor its first decade.
Five years ago, the group traveled to England and returned aboard the Queen Mary, singing all the way. That trip went so smoothly and the group had so much fun — and came together so well musically — that something similar for their 10-year anniversary seemed like an excellent idea, explains Ronald Doiron, the Bach Ensemble’s conductor and artistic director.
“It’s a cultural tour,” Doiron says. “We have our own bus, driver, all the tour guides lined up for us and we’re visiting the major cultural sites that are related to music.”
In Germany, those sites include Leipzig, where Bach lived for 27 years, and Dresden, where Heinrich Schuetz, a prominent composer of the 17th-century, worked and died. They’ll also go to Halle, where George Frideric Handel was born.
Along the way, they’ll perform. Bach’s on the bill, as is Handel. American composers and spiritual songs will have their turn, too.
“We’re even doing a piece by a baroque Czech composer, (Frantisek) Brixi, so when we’re in Prague, we’re going to be singing Czech music in Prague,” Doiron says.
Not only is Halle a point of musical interest for the Bach Ensemble; the group has a personal interest in the area. Two members of the group were originally from there and fled in the 1950s during East Germany’s years of communist rule.
Now, the Bach Ensemble plans to sing at the church the couple originally attended prior to coming to the United States. The concert will be a benefit for the church, which has fallen into disrepair, Doiron says.
About 30 of the ensemble’s 40 members are going on the European trip. The group’s members have various levels of musical training and experience, but they all share the same degree of commitment, Doiron notes. From September through April, the Bach Ensemble practices three hours a week to present just a handful of concerts. They must also practice on their own.
Although the group is not composed of professional singers — excluding soloists — its devotion to making music is evident in performance, Doiron says. They have a well-blended, full sound and are very focused on their interpretation of the music, with great attention to detail, phrasing and articulation.
This year, the Bach Ensemble is concluding the season with an additional, special presentation of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.” It’s the full “Messiah,” all three parts, and performed in the authentic baroque style in which it was written.
It will last 2½ hours and have two intermissions — but never fear, Doiron says. If you’re expecting a heavy, ponderous “Messiah,” this won’t be that. For many, this “Messiah” may be something new and fresh, a musical experience they’ve never had before with Handel’s most famous work.
Through the years and because of its popularity, the “Messiah” has undergone changes in interpretation to reflect the current musical mood. During the classical and romantic eras, Handel’s “Messiah” morphed to reflect those styles, Doiron explains, “until there was no way they could interpret his music correctly, in a baroque style.”
“It was shaded over, covered over by the current trends,” Doiron says.
By performing the “Messiah” in the true baroque style in which it was first composed, audiences can expect a Messiah where the tempos are quick and the phrases are short. The choruses will be lighter and softer, at least “until it’s time to give it to them,” Doiron says.
Finally, next year, the Bach Ensemble is planning one of its biggest choral events ever: One concert only, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, considered one of the greatest works of the baroque period and of classical music overall. The Bach Ensemble will perform the work with a full 24-piece orchestra on Friday, March 9, 2012, at Moorings Presbyterian Church in Naples.
Doiron is thoroughly excited about the prospect of performing the Mass. It’s the kind of work that “imprints” on a singer, he says; one of the current members of the Bach Ensemble performed the Mass 30 years ago and can still remember it.
“It’s one of those pieces that once you have performed it as a singer or instrumentalist, you never forget it,” Doiron says.