Bach Week Festival Kicks Off Strong

For the past 36 years, there has been a heralding of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach in the Chicagoland area. Spanning a full week and comprising as many as four programs, the Bach Week provides Bach fans with the opportunity to hear wonderful renditions of his best music in intimate and immediate settings. This year’s Bach Week Festival, reduced to two concerts this weekend because of the precarious economy, continues that strong legacy of fine music making. The opening concert featured works for harpsichord, chosen carefully and smartly programmed by the featured soloist, David Schrader.

Let me first praise the venue, Evanston, Illinois’ Music Institute of Chicago. It was my first time there, and while sitting in the intimate and acoustically brilliant space of Nichols Concert Hall, I felt there could be no more sympathetic location for the performance of Bach. It looks like a shrine to music – spare, open, elegant but not gaudy. The reverential mood is helped by the pews instead of rigidly numbered seats. It is a beautiful venue, made more wonderful by the enlightening and engrossing performance of famed keyboardist David Schrader.

I know Mr. Schrader’s work well. In addition to performing as soloist all over the place, he works with Music of the Baroque and Baroque Band, among others. I will never forget when, at a Baroque Band concert, he performed a harpsichord version of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No.2 when the flutist got stuck in New York. He betrayed a creative and highly musical mind. Yesterday’s concert was no different. His selections for keyboard ran the gamut, avoiding Bach’s most oft-performed works. The Well-Tempered Clavier, Goldberg Variations, Italian Concerto, and the various Suites were not there. Instead we were treated to a varied fare, culminating in Bach’s masterful Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue.

To say that Mr. Schrader deals in an abundance of notes would be an understatement. The music is so involved, and he dashed it off with few problems. A highlight from the first half was Bach’s Capriccio, BWV 992, on the departure of his brother, a decidedly programmatic piece of music. The ‘Giga’ from the Partita, BWV 825, performed in the second half, was a delight to hear and see. From the reflection on the bright red hood of the beautiful harpsichord, I beheld the endless hand cross-overs that the piece required, which added a new dimension to the enjoyment of the piece. The true piece d’ resistance was Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue, a work of so much freedom and vigor, it would surprise anyone. As Schrader said from the stage, this piece is the best example we have of what it would have sounded like to hear Bach extemporize at the keyboard. With that in mind, the keyboardist performed the innumerable number of notes without the assistance of a score. Schrader’s performance was dramatic and controlled simultaneously. This is Baroque romanticism after all.

Added to the wonderful performance was the entertaining comments made from the stage by David. His written comments in the program booklet are extensive, and to that he contributed even more knowledge and humor. He even took questions from the audience in the middle of the concert about the harpsichord and its sonic possibilities. You get the strong impression that Schrader knows everything about his instrument, not to mention that he also performs on organ, piano and fortepiano.

Although this year’s Bach Festival is slighter, it does not lack from the same artistic drive and mission. This concert was beautifully performed and warmly appreciated by the audience. The same will definitely hold true of the next concert in the series, Sunday’s performance at the beautiful Music Institute of Chicago, of Bach’s works in all fields really. A cantata, two concerti, a motet and a cello suite will all be performed. Mr. Schrader will return as soloist in the performance of the BRandenburg Concerto No.5. I will definitely be there, and hopefully you can as well.

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