MSO Hosts First Bach Fest

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2023.24 Season, Around Town, Classics

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s celebration of 300-year-old music is going in some brand new directions.

The upcoming festival of the music of J.S. Bach, with two separate subscription concerts on the same weekend, will be paired with more community involvement, as schools, churches, businesses, and other musical organizations participate in various ways.

“It is with the city and for the city, not just the programs we present but the partnerships with others,” said Music Director Ken-David Masur. Having grown up in Leipzig, Germany, where Bach spent the last 27 years of his life as a working church musician, Masur went to many Bach festivals himself as a young person. “It brings joy and a feeling of community to every place, and I thought it would be an opportunity for us,” he said.

The main community event will be a free concert on Monday, March 18, at 6:30 p.m. at the Bradley Symphony Center, featuring both MSO musicians and community performers. Marquita Edwards, the MSO’s director of community engagement, said that the participants have been chosen to provide a wide variety of musical styles, but each piece is connected to Bach in some fashion.

Most of the drum line students at Carmen High School of Science and Technology, for instance, have never seen the Bradley Symphony Center. And none of them have ever played Bach before.

When music director Andrea Brown-Westfahl got the invitation, she said, “I’m going, Bach festival? Drum line?? I know there’s nothing Bach wrote for a drum line.” But Bach has been recast into new combinations for centuries, and a percussionist friend is doing an arrangement that will get the idea across of Bach’s famous “Little” Fugue in G minor. “Nothing but sixteenth notes is what drum lines do,” she joked.

The idea of performing at the Bradley Symphony Center is “terrifying, but we’re going to do it because it’s something different,” said Brown-Westfahl, who will be bringing 15 to 20 students in grades 7-12. “It’s showing the kids that they can play something written 300 years ago. And they do get it. When I come in, they’re practicing on their own. It’s going to be loud, and it’s going to be crazy.”

This year happens to be the 300th anniversary of Bach taking the job of music director at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. And the Magnificat, which the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will perform, is also celebrating its 300th birthday and is part of the flood of music that Bach wrote for Sunday worship at his new church.

Throughout the week, MSO musicians will be presenting chamber concerts of Bach’s music in various Colectivo locations and at Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel. In addition, various churches and organizations — including Chant Claire, the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, and the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra — will be presenting their own Bach performances. Community partners will also be performing for all of the March 22-24 concerts at the Bradley Symphony Center.

The two MSO programs on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday will be performed by two totally separate groups of MSO musicians. “It was a logistical feat,” Masur said drily. “We are all being flexible and covering a large amount of repertoire.” But he will be conducting only the Magnificat and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1; other pieces will be led by their soloists, Mahan Esfahani and Rachell Ellen Wong.

Much has changed in the musical world since the early 1700s. Orchestras are bigger and instrument technology has evolved, but in recent generations, the idea of “historically informed performance,” or trying to play the music the way Bach would have heard it, has gained acceptance.

Specialized early music groups and symphony orchestras both perform the music of the 18th century. There is plenty of middle ground, however, such as using Baroque style on modern instruments. “We did a lot of early music in the virtual season,” Masur said, referring to the spring of 2021, when the pandemic and social distancing mandated performing in much smaller groups. “There is interest, and where there’s interest, there’s a way. Our musicians are very flexible.”

Of the weeklong festival, Edwards said, “There are so many wonderful performances and events to attend. I’d encourage everyone to go to at least one event, maybe two or three, and celebrate with us.”