For Professor David Higgs of the Eastman School of Music, Bach is a genius that sets his pulse a flutter. "Bach's genius transcends time," says Higgs. "The question of why Bach's music has survived the centuries is a big one. I'm not sure I can find the words to express 'why.'"
Higgs's enthusiasm for Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) makes him a lightning rod for the upcoming multi-day, international conference "Bach and the Organ," jointly presented by the Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative and the American Bach Society on September 27-30 at the Eastman School of Music. Concerts will take place every day at three primary locations.
The inaugural concert of the conference is being performed by Eastman faculty Hans Davidsson, William Porter, and Higgs at Christ Church. It is to be a "reconstruction" of Felix Mendelssohn's organ concert of Bach's music in Leipzig, German in 1840. Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was, like Bach, a German composer, pianist, and organist, credited with reviving interest in the music of Bach.
"Mendelssohn saw when he was living in Leipzig [German] that there was no formal appreciation for Bach, so he thought there should be a statue to commemorate that Bach spent so many years there at the Thomaskirsche [St. Thomas Church]," says Higgs. "Mendelssohn raised the money performing a concert and the statue of Bach still stands."
The program of the 1840 concert is available. Within the program, there were two places that Mendelssohn improvised — one a short passage, one a major section of 10 to 15 minutes in length.
The recreation of Mendelssohn's improvisation, which was not transcribed, became a matter of scholarly research. Higgs explains that part of the recreation process was to study the concert review, written by none other than composer Robert Schumann. Schumann's review, along with other narratives, was considered in relationship to the style and practices of that time to arrive at the improvisations that Porter will include in his performance.
Another aspect of the concert recreation that is of interest is that Higgs, Porter, and Davidsson will play Bach "at the general performance level used today," according to Higgs.
Higgs explained that performance styles change over time. "Ever since Bach died, people have been playing his music according to the fashion of music of the time," says Higgs. He cites as an example that even when Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach transcribed some of his father's music after his death, CPE Bach added notes and flourishes to it to make it "a little more palatable to the common taste just 20 years after his father's death."
"Mendelssohn did the same thing," says Higgs, "he rearranged some of Bach's music to suit his own taste — this was a time in the 19th century when one of the fashions was to take someone else's music as the basis to add your own mark to it."
Higgs claims that a person could actually use performances of Bach's music across the centuries as a kind of sociological reflection of culture, leading to our current taste of people wanting to recreate the original sounds as made by the composer. That's where the Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative comes into play.
When George Eastman founded the Eastman School of Music in 1921, he brought his love of organ music to its very foundations, equipping the school with 14 practice pipe organs. It was actually one of the first schools in the world to have practice organs.
Now, EROI either imports or recreates prototypical instruments from many schools of organ playing. There are two organs already installed through EROI: the Italian Baroque organ at the Memorial Art Gallery, which includes parts dating to the 1600's; and the Craighead-Saunders organ at Christ Church, which is a scientific recreation of an organ from 1776. This fall, a third organ will enter the collection, a Hook & Hastings Organ Opus 1573, an American romantic organ from 1892, with parts dating to the 1860's, which has already arrived at Christ Church.
Higgs says that the American Bach Society thought these instruments would be a great focus and locus for its biennial conference, held in conjunction with the annual EROI Festival.
The conference is sold out to more than 200 of the world's leading scholars of Bach. "The list of attendees is like a Who's Who of Bach studies around the globe," says Higgs. "It's quite a coup for something of this magnitude to be in Rochester."
In addition to the concert performances, the conference will include four days of papers presented by scholars on topics from "The Students of Bach — the Curious Case of Matthias Sojka" to "Did J.S. Bach Write Organ Concertos?"
Scholarship of Bach's work also takes place right here in Rochester, including through the holdings at the Sibley Music Library at Eastman School of Music. Dan Zager, associate dean and head librarian at the Sibley Music Library describes the library's most important Bach holding as the third part of the "Clavier-übung" from 1739. The edition at Sibley also contains a pen-and-ink note, Zager says, that changes the printed dedication from "for the delight of the mind" to "for the delight of the eye and the offense of the ear." The piece will be performed on Sunday pm at Sacred Heart Cathedral by organist Robert Bates. (See the sidebar for a full list of EROI Festival concerts.)
"We have to remember that in 1737, shortly before this was published, Bach was being criticized in print as being way too complex," says Zager. "The pen-and-ink notation gives us this little clue as to how the musical enlightenment was playing itself out in Germany as aesthetic values were beginning to challenge counterpoint with the kind of melody-centered music that we identify with the Baroque."
For Rochestarians, we once again can enjoy the bounty of being home to the Eastman School of Music and the riches of its concert programming. As Higgs puts it: "There may be a few places in Europe where you can find this [grouping of organs], but Eastman is really an international place for performance, scholarship, and organ building."
Thursday, September 27
8 p.m.: Reconstruction of Mendelssohn's Organ Concert in Leipzig, 1840 (Christ Church, $15)
Friday, September 28
1 p.m.: Bach Concert by Eastman Student Organists (Christ Church, $15)
8 p.m.: Organ Recital by Jacques van Oortmerssen (Christ Church, $15)
Saturday, September 29
1 p.m.: Clavichord Recital by Joel Speerstra (Hatch Recital Hall, SOLD OUT)
6 & 8:30 p.m.: Gala Concert w/Boston Early Music Chamber, organists Edoardo Bellotti and William Porter, Christ Church Schola Cantorum ($25, Christ Church)
Sunday, September 30
2 p.m.: Organ Recital by Robert Bates: "Clavierübung III" (Sacred Heart Cathedral, $15)
5:30 p.m.: Italian Baroque Organ recital by Edoardo Bellotti (Memorial Art Gallery, SOLD OUT)
9 p.m.: Compline by Christ Church Schola Cantorum (Christ Church, FREE)
Tuesday, October 2
6 & 8:30 p.m.: Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble w/Paul O'Dette and William Porter (Hatch Recital Hall, $15-$20)
Tickets available at Eastman Theater Box Office, 454-2100, rpo.org. Note that discounts are available for students.
Pianist Yuja Wang on Thursday and Saturday broke into Bartok and helped the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra reach new heights.