Ben Pyne reports back from the opening concert of Lewis Kaplan’s Bach Virtuosi Festival, which took inspiration from NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft

Ariadne Daskalakis 2sm

Violinist Ariadne Daskalakis

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The Bach Virtuosi Festival, founded and directed by violinist, conductor, and pedagogue Lewis Kaplan, launched its New York concert series on 14 May 2024. Bringing this festival, which began in Portland, Maine in 2016, to New York has been Kaplan’s desire for several years. The Portland festival will continue with its ninth season from 19-25 June. 

The opening night concert for BVF NY, entitled ’The Eternal Bach,’ presented three Bach pieces, Prelude and Fugue in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II; Gavotte from the E Major Partita for solo violin; and Brandenburg Concerto no. 2, that are preserved on the Golden Record on NASA’s Voyager 1. 

Christoph Wolff, the renowned Bach historian and scholar, opened the festival on 13 May with an introductory lecture where he expounded that these works of Bach were likely chosen for NASA because they each represent major cyclical instrumental compositions, namely The Well-Tempered Clavier, the six solo works for violin, and the six Brandenburg Concerti. 

These works at the opening concert bookended a programme, which also included the Motet, ’Jesu Meine Freude’ BWV 227, three vocal arias, Flute Sonata in B minor BWV 1030 and Organ Sonata BWV 528 arranged for Trio Sonata. What at first glance might seem like an eclectic combination was drawn together beautifully by the clever dramaturgy and the exquisite performances. Harpsichordist Arthur Haas began the musical journey (of both the festival and Voyager 1) with an exciting rendition of the C Major Prelude and Fugue, and violinist Ariadne Daskalakis joined him onstage for a seamless and graceful transition to the E Major Gavotte, exploring all the different characters of each episode and the depths of this playful work. Flutist Emi Ferguson and cellist Nathan Whittaker joined them for the Trio Sonata, in which the ensemble’s expert chamber music-making gave the piece not only rhythmic excitement but also a nuanced transparency and beauty. 

Following, ’Jesu meine Freude’ was sung exquisitely by vocalists Sherezade Panthaki, Helen Karloski, Jay Carter, Jacob Perry, and Paul Max Tipton. The voices, each special in their own right, were beautifully matched; they breathed and sang as one. The performance was in turn lyrical, expressive, and dramatic, and in itself an argument that this piece would also have been an excellent choice for the Voyager’s Golden Record. 

After the intermission Emi Ferguson and Arthur Haas’ rendition of the B minor Flute Sonata did true justice to this complex work, each part shining in its own right, whether it be through Ferguson’s ethereal colors or Haas’s sensitive and virtuosic voicing. Haas was a pivotal performer for the entire concert as soloist and as continuo player, joined in turn by expert colleagues, cellist Nathan Whittaker and bassist Jordan Frazier. The three trio arias, ’Suscepit Israel, Wenn meine Trübsal’ and ’Ach wann wird die Zeit erscheinen,’ presented different chamber music constellations which introduced the honeyed timbre of oboist Roni Gal-Ed and the beautifully warm sound of violinist Renée Jolles, supporting the commanding vocal soloists in turn. The finale of the programme was Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 2, where all the instrumentalists came together, supported by violinist Leerone Hakami and violist Sebastian Gottschick. 

The beautiful acoustics of the Church of St. Ignatius of Antioch allowed room to appreciate the multi-layered scoring of soloists and accompaniment, each part played with joy and beauty. The intimacy of the second movement, explored by Renée Jolles, Emi Ferguson, and Roni Gal-Ed, contrasted with the resounding energy of the outer movements. The whole was crowned by the glorious trumpet playing of John Thiessen, whose pure sound was divinely beautiful without ever overwhelming the context. It is a rare treat to hear these works played so beautifully live. 

Lewis Kaplan

Lewis Kaplan

Credit goes to Lewis Kaplan for conceiving of this project and bringing together this team of musicians, all with the mission of celebrating the legacy of composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1865-1750). A living legacy in his own right, Kaplan is a senior professor of violin and chamber music at the Juilliard School; he founded and led the Bowdoin International Music Festival for 50 years, and as a founding member of the Aeolian Chamber Players since 1964, he was responsible for the commissioning of works by Luciano Berio, Milton Babbitt and George Crumb, among others. 

The subject of historical performance practice has been prioritized since the festival’s 2016 inception with an array of unique artists, but not exclusively, allowing for flexible programming and a roster of special guests, including pianist Richard Goode. BVF Maine programs include Before Bach and Beyond, a programme that celebrates music ranging from contemporaries of Bach to current contemporary music, as well as a Fellowship programme for mentoring younger musicians. 

Bach Virtuosi Festival New York, which sold out all three concerts within a few weeks, also programmed the concert ’Bach by Candlelight’ at the French Church du St-Esprit with solo works for cello, flute and violin, performed by Ezra Seltzer, Emi Ferguson and Ariadne Daskalakis. The finale of the New York festival entitled, ’What a Century! Bach Handel Vivaldi,’ brings a programme that includes the superb musicians from the opening night concert, to perform Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 2, Arias from English Oratorios by Handel, a Bach arrangement of Vivaldi’s Harpsichord Concerto in F Major, and Brandenburg Concerto no. 5. This concert will again take place at the Church of St. Ignatius of Antioch on 21 May.

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