Local Arts

This year’s Charlotte Bach Festival aims to show you a new side of Baroque music

The Bach Akademie Charlotte Cantata Choir and the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra perform Bach’s B minor mass under the direction of Scott Allen Jarrett at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston Salem in June 2018.
The Bach Akademie Charlotte Cantata Choir and the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra perform Bach’s B minor mass under the direction of Scott Allen Jarrett at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston Salem in June 2018. Courtesy of Charlotte Bach Festival.

When you think about the upcoming Charlotte Bach Festival, the number to remember is two.

Not 1128, the total of Johann Sebastian’s works that have reached us, though you’ll hear some of the best when the festival kicks off in Charlotte on June 8. (It starts in Asheville the day before.)

Not 20, the number of children he fathered over 34 years, though his talented offspring may show up in solo recitals.

Not six dozen, the rough number of soloists, choristers and instrumentalists dedicated to performing the Baroque master’s music as he’d have heard it three centuries ago.

Nope, two. Because this is the second annual festival from Bach Akademie Charlotte, and because Scott Allen Jarrett believes Bach appeals in a special way to both halves of your brain.

“His music gets you firing on every cylinder,” the Akademie’s artistic director said. “There are composers you love — like Handel, who allows me to luxuriate in his music — and composers who challenge you. Bach does both. He challenges me to be the musician I should be technically and offers intellectual, emotional and theological challenges.”

You can test this notion through June 15. Jarrett bookended the festival with masterworks: It starts with the Magnificat, Orchestral Suite No. 2 and a cantata for the Feast of St. Michael, and it ends with the monumental St. Matthew Passion. (The North Carolina Baroque Orchestra handles instrumental chores.)

In between come recitals by Isabelle Demers, who heads the organ department at Baylor University; violinist Aisslinn Nosky, who conducted and soloed with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in January; and trombonist Tom Burge, taking a break from CSO duties to play brassy adaptations in “Bach at the Brauhaus” at Free Range Brewing. In between, Jarrett will conduct two lunchtime cantata concerts.

Jarrett, board chairman Michael Trammell and fellow devotees founded the Akademie to immerse the region in Bach’s vocal and instrumental works. (They kept the German spelling to honor the composer’s homeland.) They’ve created programming that may not exist in this form anywhere else in the United States.

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Karin Brookes, executive director of Early Music America, believes Bach Akademie Charlotte’s programming is unique in that it runs year-round. Photo by Gary Payne Photography

Karin Brookes, executive director of Early Music America, keeps an eye on pre-1800s music festivals. She’s aware of leaders in this field, from the Bethlehem (Pa.) Bach Festival — which has been around for 113 years — to the Oregon Bach Festival, an international event that will turn 50 in 2020.

She thinks Charlotte’s experience is unique in two ways. First, events run year-round, as Jarrett leads a cantata series to entertain and educate listeners. Second, it’s set in the South.

“It’s a miracle to me when anyone gets anything like this off the ground and makes it work, because it’s so hard setting up a nonprofit in this arts climate and economic climate,” Brookes said. “All cities have legacy organizations that have been around for decades. (To compete), you need to know your community will be receptive to you.

“Early music actually does pretty well around the country because of its novel nature. And even people who don’t know much about classical music know Bach. He just has a universal appeal.”

Early beginnings

Bach first mesmerized Jarrett as a 10-year-old piano student in Lynchburg, Va. The Brandenburg Concertos took over his cassette player, and his heritage in the Southern Baptist church opened him up to the great passions, mass, oratorios and cantatas. He did his independent study at Furman University on Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” but “the piece that captured my heart, mind and soul was the St. Matthew Passion.”

Jarrett built up a Charlotte following from 2004 to 2015 as director of choruses and then assistant conductor of the Charlotte Symphony. He so enjoyed the gig that he commuted weekly from his home in Boston, where he’s director of music at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel.

Trammell immediately sought him for the BAC, after deciding the city could support a part-performance, part-educational endeavor devoted mostly to one composer.

“The Charlotte Symphony doesn’t get the opportunity to do a lot of Bach, so I saw a need in the marketplace,” said Trammell, a tenor who works at Northrop Grumman Synoptics. “I think Charlotte audiences are knowledgeable about quality, and if we were to do early music, we could offer a high-quality product to complement the symphony’s offerings. Scott can connect the historical context to the music, and that’s what makes his Bach so accessible.”

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Scott Allen Jarrett, artistic director of Bach Akademie Charlotte, leads rehearsals and concerts of the Back Bay Chorale in Boston. Courtesy of Charlotte Bach Festival.

Trammell first built relationships with Myers Park churches. The BAC later moved beyond them as far as Gastonia and Winston-Salem last year and Chapel Hill this year, where the St. Matthew Passion will go before closing the festival in Charlotte.

Seeking authenticity

He, Jarrett and the board made a crucial decision at the start: Pieces must be played and sung on period instruments, in period styles, by orchestras and choruses of authentic size. Though both men studied with Helmuth Rilling, famous for massive presentations in the early days of the Oregon festival, they didn’t want beefy Bach. (Royce Saltzman co-founded the Oregon event with Rilling; his grandson, Adam Romey, is managing director of the Charlotte festival.)

Inexperienced listeners may think “historically informed performance” means violins that screech like tortured cats, singers who hoot in vibrato-less voices and conductors whose tempos rival a bullet train’s. Not so.

“Scott transforms the way (audiences) think about Baroque music,” Brookes said. “He’s using singers and musicians trained in this style, which makes all the difference. Once you have heard Bach lean and mean, you don’t want to go back.”

Trammell’s proud of the direction Charlotte’s young Akademie is taking: adding funky offerings such as Burge’s, doing a lecture series at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, creating a Vocal Fellows program to train young singers on the cusp of professional careers, moving around the city in the months between festivals with cantatas accompanied by lectures. (Jarrett considers those the most underrated Bach genre: “it’s hard to find one cantata out of 200-plus that doesn’t meet his high standard.”)

The BAC has already gone beyond its namesake: Nosky and Demers will play non-Bach pieces, including contemporary works, and the cantata series has presented different composers. Jarrett, who turns 45 this month, wants to add Handel oratorios and other early classics down the road. Yet he’ll never stray too far from the main man.

“Other composers rejoice in who you are and meet you there,” he said. “Bach doesn’t do that. His music reveals who I could be — and maybe who I ought to be.”

If You’re Going

Bach Akademie Charlotte will produce the Charlotte Bach Festival from June 7-15, in venues across the city and in Asheville and Chapel Hill. Tickets range from $10 to hear Tom Burge at Free Range Brewing to $40 or $60 to hear the St. Matthew Passion. Ticket packages range from $70-$150. Get details at info@bacharlotte.com or bacharlotte.com.

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