Church of the Holy Trinity, site of this year’s Kaffeehaus. Photo by Elana Emer.The Toronto Bach Festival was founded in 2016 by internationally-recognized Bach authority John Abberger (best known to Toronto period music devotees as principal oboist of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra). In the spring of 2019, columnist Matthew Whitfield interviewed Abberger for The WholeNote and wrote this: “For the past three years, the Toronto Bach Festival has presented a three-day intensive series of concerts, recitals, and lecture presentations focusing on Johann Sebastian Bach, his world, and his works. Increasing in size and scale each year, the festival attracts magnificent performers and interpreters.” Substitute “past five non-pandemic years” for “three” and the comment is as accurate today as it was then.

Back in 2019, the Festival ran from May 24 to 26, book-ended by performances of Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, among other works, on Friday, and his Lutheran Masses on the Sunday. The Saturday in between featured solo performances, by harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour and cellist Elinor Frey, and a lecture on Bach and the French Style, featuring renowned musicologist Ellen Exner.

“This year’s festival features an eclectic mix of Bach’s secular and sacred music” Whitfield observed to Abberger. “Is there an organizing principle or underlying idea that permeates your concerts and programming?”

“Absolutely!” Abberger replied. “ From day one, a guiding principle for the programming has been that the three main genres in which Bach worked, choral, keyboard and instrumental, should be represented at each festival. This is why we will always have a keyboard recital, generally alternating between harpsichord and organ. Another important artistic mandate is to perform cantatas each year. With so many to choose from, we won’t run out for quite a few years! The instrumental works comprise works for solo instruments (violin, cello and flute) as well as chamber and orchestral music. I strive each year to find a nice balance with the great diversity of genres in which Bach worked.”

The pattern: Glance at the titles of the festival concerts over the years, and it’s clear that Abberger has stuck to that guiding principle from day one.

Take 2018 for example: an opening concert titled “Two Brandenburg with Love,” a Saturday organ recital titled “Bach’s Inspiration” by Toronto-born Rachel Mahon (fresh off her appointment as the first woman to be appointed organ scholar at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London) and a Sunday concert titled “Cantatas and a Passion.” 2020 and 2021 offered … nothing.

But in 2022, the festival was back, seemingly unaffected by the hiatus. The Friday brought us “Brilliant Brandeburg”; Saturday brought an equally brilliant three-pack — a noon organ recital, by organist and Bach scholar John Bott, followed by “The Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin” in two parts, at 4pm and 8pm respectively, performed by violinists Julia Wedman, Patricia Ahern, Valerie Gordon and Cristina Zacharias. Sunday brought the by-now-expected public lecture, by John Bott. Titled “Bach the Dramatist” it was an in-depth look at Bach’s dramatic writing in oratorio settings, particularly the Easter Oratorio and Ascension Oratorio; the 4pm final concert of the festival then featured those two oratorios.

2023 gave us “Virtuoso Concerto” on the Friday, featuring concertos for one and two harpsichords, followed on Saturday by harpsichordist Steven Devine performing The Well-Tempered Clavier in two parts (at noon and 2pm). Sunday’s Annual Bach Lecture was “J.S. Bach: Cantor, Capellmeister, Director” by musicologist Daniel R. Melamed from the Jacobs School of Music in Indiana, and the 4pm Sunday finale, “Leipzig Cantatas,” crossed two more cantatas, Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV75 and Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes BWV76, off Abberger’s list.

Which brings us to this year’s festival: The opening Friday concert, at Eastminster United Church, on the Danforth, is “The Game of Threes” and features, among other works, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G Major, Concerto for Three Violins in D Major, and Violin Concerto in A Minor. The violin-playing honours are distributed among Adrian Butterfield, who directs the concert, and two of Abberger’s longtime Tafelmusik cohorts: Patricia Ahern and Cristina Zacharias.

Saturday brings an intriguing mix of sacred and secular: a noon organ recital by Aaron James at St. Andrews Church at 73 Simcoe Street, across from Roy Thomson Hall, followed by two performances, at 4pm and 8pm, of “Kaffeehaus” – a 2022 festival innovation relocated from its theoretically ideal location (the Concert Hall at Yonge and Davenport) to the friendlier and more rough-and-ready surrounds of Church of the Holy Trinity (19 Trinity Sq, behind the Toronto Eaton Centre), where the pews are not bolted to the floor and more than one cup of coffee has been spilled over the years!)

Sunday takes us back across the Bloor viaduct to Eastminster, first for the public lecture, provisionally titled “Bach’s Music Library and Its Influence on His Style,” presented via live broadcast, by musicologist Christoph Wolff – someone, Abberger says, he has been hoping to bring to the festival since its inception. The festival’s final concert, “How Brightly Shines” is at 4pm and promises to live up to its name. Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How Brightly Shines the Morning Star) is the title of two of the works on the program – one by Bach and one by Johann Kuhnau. And shining stars there will be a-plenty on view: Yeree Suh and Sinéad White, sopranos; Daniel Taylor and Nicholas Burns, altos; Charles Daniels and Shane Hanson, tenors; Jesse Blumberg and Martin Gomes, basses; and whomever comprises the Toronto Bach Festival Orchestra, which will have had three days to bond as an ensemble.

John Abberger. Photo credit Sian Richards.

VIA ZOOM: I caught up with John Abberger via Zoom in Charlottesville, Virginia on March 12 – the final day of Tafelmusik’s recent six-city US tour, of a program titled “Passions Revealed,” devised by guest director Aisslin Nosky. Here are some snippets from that conversation.

J.A, ON ATTENDANCE: We’ve sold out a number of performances, but not so far in Eastminster, so we have good capacity there which is good. Last year we had to move the opening concert to Church of the Holy Trinity, with a capacity of, I think, 400, so I’m hopeful that we can maybe do 450 or 500 at Eastminster this year. Our opening concert, the instrumental music, is so far always the most popular, which is interesting to me because it’s the vocal music that’s the heart of Bach’s output. But we’re building an audience for that, too. We have a devoted core, and we add people every year. So I’m confident about that.

ON GUEST ARTISTS: As you know I like to bring in people. And this year we’ve got two really interesting new guests: Adrian Butterfield, the violinist, is coming from London. And Yeree Suh is this wonderful Korean soprano who lives in Stuttgart. Oh, and tenor Charles Daniels is coming back, I don’t mean to minimize him. He’s one of the best. So those are our big guest artists. But I think it’s important that we support people here in Toronto as well, you know. So that’s why I’m really pleased to present organist Aaron James for the first time.

ON “THE GAME OF THREES”: Adrian and I did the programming together. I have my opinions, it’s part  of my job as artistic director to shape each program as a part of the whole festival. So there was a lot of really interesting back and forth about that. I really wanted the Concerto for 3 Violins. It’s one of Bach’s strongest concertos, and it only survived in a version for three harpsichords. The first movement is like Vivaldi on steroids.  It’s almost sonata form, a fantastic movement. I’ve really wanted to do that for some time. So from there, the third Brandenburg made sense. And so on.

ON BACH’S INFLUENCES: (last year’s festival was close to all-Bach, this year noticeably less so.) We are still only scratching the surface. Our idea is to show a little bit of what music influenced Bach. What were his models, what influenced his compositional style? Vivaldi was a huge one. You know 1711 was the publication in Amsterdam of his L’Estro Armonico, Opus 3 concertos for solo instruments, and people in Europe went crazy for that music. I talked at the Kaffeehaus last year about Prince Johan-Erst of Saxe-Weimar. Bach worked for him as a very young man, in his early 20s maybe? But anyway,  the Prince went to Amsterdam, I think in 1713 – Bach’s life is all these little tiny tidbits of information, right? So you kind of hope you’re gonna connect the dots with some vague sense of accuracy. There is a document that says the prince brought home so much music they had to have new shelves constructed in the library, and Bach made these harpsichord transcriptions of three or four of them. The prince was writing music too, and I think that was their way of studying them.

And [Dieterich] Buxtehude too, in the realm of organ influences was huge. There’s a video of a program Tom Allen did recently with and for Sweetwater Music Festival. He calls it Bach’s Long Walk In the Snow – walking to Lubeck to hear Buxtehude play. He went in November, and the people he worked for said “Okay, you can go, but be back in time for the Christmas season” and he said he’d be gone for four weeks, and he stayed for three months … so there’s a nice sub-theme leading from Saturday to Sunday. Aaron James plays Buxtehude’s Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern in his organ recital, one of my favourite pieces of his. And Bach loved that chorale too.


Toronto Symphony Orchestra: You can get your Bach on in a few places this spring. The Toronto Symphony presents “Brilliant Bach,” a crowd-pleasing program with some of the concerti for multiple violins, including the Concerto for Two Violins & String Orchestra BWV 1043 and Concerto for Three Violins & String Orchestra BWV 1064R, as well as Brandenburg Concerto No.2 BWV 1047 and more. Jonathan Crow leads and plays solo violin. Wednesday, Apr 24 to Saturday, Apr 27 at 8pm, Roy Thomson Hall; Sunday, Apr 28 at 3pm, George Weston Recital Hall

Trinity Bach on the GO: Increasingly it’s worth the trip to Hamilton, and the GO train is at your service, so why not consider a program planned there by the Trinity Bach Project, intriguing for its contextualization of J.S. Bach’s music. The concert includes Bach’s beautiful Motet Jesu, meine Freunde, but also pieces by those who influenced him, and those whom he influenced: motets by his predecessor Heinrich Schütz, and Monteverdi’s Cantate Domino, but also Anton Bruckner’s sacred motet Locus iste. Felix Deák offers selected movements of Suites Nos.1 & 2 for unaccompanied cello. Nicholas Nicolaidis conducts the chamber choir, and Aaron James is at the organ. Saturday, Apr 20, at 3pm St. John the Evangelist Church (Hamilton).

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