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New generation learning how to talk Bach

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October 3, 2005

Source: University of Toronto:

New generation learning how to talk Bach

2005 International Bach Festival hosted at U of T
Oct 3/05
by Michah Rynor (about) (email)

With the overwhelming popularity of hip hop, rap and electronic music on the airwaves these days, it would be easy to think the music of Johannes Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) would be like a foreign language for many university students.

But such is not the case, as evidenced by the number taking part in the 2005 International Bach Festival at the University of Toronto Oct. 1 to 9.

Here, with the guiding hand of artistic director Doreen Rao, scholars, students and performers from around the world will explore the esthetic, theological, social and contemporary relevance of this musical icon. This yearís theme is the poetry of the Psalms and the politics of the Old Testament in Bachís early cantatas.

Especially thrilling will be the return appearance of Grammy-award winning conductor Helmuth Rilling, artistic director of the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, as the Faculty of Musicís inaugural Nicholas Goldschmidt Conductor-in-Residence. As festival conductor, he will lead a series of concerts and lectures.

However, his arrival will cause more than a few butterflies in stomachs as students try to learn their lines -- in German -- for his approval.

Stephanie Applin, a French major, is a veteran of the festival. She sang last year with the MacMillan Singers and has been attending an "intense" rehearsal schedule in anticipation of Rillingís arrival. Although everyone is trying to get the German down pat, Applin says the conductor will no doubt have numerous corrections to make, being the perfectionist he is reputed to be.

Cecilia Livingston, a second year piano major who was a festival spectator last year, is also girding herself for the upcoming challenge. "Weíve been doing a lot of work on pronunciation," she says. "Itís intimidating but I think itís going to be deeply educational because everything Rilling says is going to have incredible weight because of his reputation. Iíd like to be a conductor someday, so the chance to see him from the non-audience side of things is going to be quite something."

Applin says pronunciation aside, the works themselves are challenging. "Singing Bach is certainly taxing for me but youíre exhausting yourself in a completely different way from other kinds of singing," she says.

"There is a lot of breath management required and long, sustained notes, which means exercising control -- especially when singing one long note while others are singing something else," she adds. "You have to support your fellow singers."

Livingston agrees with Applin that, from a physical perspective, itís technically demanding music. "I feel the strain when singing Bach and Iíve talked to people who have performed his solo material and heís definitely not an easy composer but the reward is in what you hear."

The festival includes a series of daily lectures -- BachTalks -- supported by the Chancellor Jackman Program for the Arts. Speakers are distinguished professors from the universities of Chicago and Cornell, Swarthmore College and U of T. The performances feature student and faculty artists plus visiting artists such as Daniel Taylor, James Taylor and the Moran Chamber Choir from Israel.



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