Of Chicago’s many festivals, Bach Week is a lasting one (the first was in 1974) celebrating one of the timeless classical composers. Bach’s simple notes on the page are never easy to perform, because they are always loaded with such meaning, so a weeklong festival gathering some of the best musicians in the area, and a few very special guests, always seems to promise we’ll hear something new in the music. Full disclosure for my readers: Bach is about my favorite composer, so it isn’t hard for me to get really excited about this festival, especially since it’s my first one since I’ve moved here.
I got the chance to sit down and chat with two musicians making their return to Chicago: the co-founder of Bach week, Richard Webster, is now the music director at the Trinity Church in Boston, and keeps coming back for Bach, and rising star in classical guitar, Adam Levin, returns to the North Shore after growing up in the area and graduating from Northwestern.
Richard Webster, co-founder & director
How have you seen the festival grow and change?
It was very ad hoc at first and we didn’t charge admission or anything like that. In the first years we much of the Bach orchestral music and in the 1980s started branching out into other baroque composers, but in 2003 we returned to our central core mission, which is to present the works of J.S. Bach. Another thing that we’ve seen evolve is that we were at St. Luke's from 1974-2003, and we moved to the Music Institute of Chicago, or Nichols Concert Hall. It’s a different festival--it started as a church thing and has really grown beyond that to one of the respected festivals in the Chicago area.
Why did you, so many years ago, settle on Bach as opposed to any other composer?
This is a matter of opinion, but I think that there has never been a greater composer in the history of western music than Bach. He said it all musically speaking…and the depth and variety of expression in his music is unlike any other composer. It’s hard to say that there is a composer who has done as much as Bach has for the sheer development of music.
If you had to pick a favorite Bach piece, which ones would you go to first?
I think if I had to choose—and I mean had to choose like someone put a gun to my head and said pick your favorite Bach piece!—it would be the B Minor Mass or St. Matthew Passion. I think that they’re some of the greatest pieces in the entire literature of western music.
Adam Levin, guitarist
You’re back in Chicago for the upcoming debut at Bach Week. What is it that you like most about Bach’s music?
I’ve been familiar with Bach Week since I was a little kid, and started attending when I was a student at Northwestern. The Bach music I just love because it’s very powerful, flamboyant, elegant and optimistic. I think that it’s important since we live in a treacherous and tumultuous economic landscape and we’re looking for a source of inspiration and looking to dig ourselves out of that and this is a good promotion for a positive future.
You’ve been studying for the past several years in Spain as a Fulbright Scholar taking on classical guitar. What makes Bach’s Lute Suite in E Major, BWV 1006a different from other guitar pieces?
There are a lot of lute suites out there and this one really sticks in my mind as one of the most beautiful. It’s an uplifting spirited suite. Even when it is more meditative, it doesn’t turn into something dark or mysterious, but reflective and foreshadows a positive future.
What do you really have to think about as a performer when taking on Bach?
Bach is the most challenging when it comes to performing because you really have to insert the music into your veins and it has to become part of your every motion and every idea has to be orchestrated—the performance can be spontaneous or in the moment—but it has to be very structured in your mind. You really have to mull over and sit with the pieces to best express Bach’s ideas and motives.