Stoked by baroque

Margaret Kelly Cook (from left), Ricard Bordas and Murray Forbes Somerville preparing for a past Bach Society of Charleston concert at First (Scots) Presbyterian Church. (File)

In the annals of Western civilization, surely two artists rise to the top of the heap: William Shakespeare and Johann Sebastian Bach. Others might be just as great (Picasso, Rembrandt, Tolstoy, Beethoven, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix), but no one is greater.

In lots of other cities, Shakespeare and Bach have organizations expressly dedicated to them and whole festivals devoted to presenting their works. Not so much in Charleston. Despite this city’s long history and connections to the Old Country, these two giants of the literary and musical canons receive, at best, intermittent attention.

Well, half of that problem is about to be solved.

The Bach Society of Charleston is a newly formed nonprofit that’s set to present its first concert at 4 p.m. Sept. 13 in the acoustically fine sanctuary of First (Scots) Presbyterian Church.

Founded by Ricard Bordas, with support from First (Scots) and keyboard player Murray Somerville, the Bach Society aims to compliment Charleston’s array of classical music offerings with specialized performances of Baroque music played on original instruments.

Bordas is an accomplished countertenor who has performed the music of Bach and many other composers for years in Europe and the United States. Currently, he is a professor of music at Charleston Southern University and director of choral music at First (Scots).

He said the Bach Society is a natural offshoot of the bi-annual Bach Festival presented by the church. That was a three-day event organized by his colleague, First (Scots) director of music JeeYoon Choi.

The first year of the festival featured an ambitious performance of the St. John Passion. In 2011, Bach cantatas were offered. In 2013, audiences got to hear the Magnificat. In each case, the church brought in professional players of Baroque period instruments.

But perhaps it was an overly ambitious undertaking for a church, a strain on its finances and not exactly part of the core mission, Bordas said.

So last year, after consulting with church colleagues such as Caroline Smalley and John Witty, he morphed the Bach Festival into the Bach Society, a stand-alone nonprofit merely housed at First (Scots).

The new organization will continue the tradition of presenting serious, authentic performances of Baroque music, Bordas said.

Witty is a big Bach fan. He’s got a friend on the board of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, near Orlando, Fla. So Witty has been involved in the Bach-related activities at First (Scots) since the beginning, he said.

He soon understood that if Bach was to find his footing in Charleston, the church’s efforts would need to become a community project.

“This can’t be just First (Scots); it’s got to be bigger,” Witty said.

After the third festival in 2013, Witty and others set up a nonprofit, put together a board, hired Bordas as artistic director and reached out to donors and sponsors.

Somerville, a choral conductor and organist who lives part-time in Charleston, is an Englishman with a noteworthy musical pedigree.

Born in London, he studied under Karl Richter in Munich, Germany, then attended Oxford University where he was Organ Scholar of New College under Sir David Lumsden. He also studied and performed at the School of Sacred Music at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

From 1990-2003, Somerville was organist and choirmaster at Harvard University. He served as director of the Bach Festival in Winter Park from 1985-1990, an experience sure to come in handy this time around. He has sat on the organ bench at several important Anglican churches in England and the U.S., including Grace Episcopal Church in Charleston.

Somerville said he’s glad that Bordas wants to employ period instrument players.

“I’m thrilled he’s going in that direction. It’s time for Charleston to do that,” he said.

Thirty years ago, there was profound resistance in the U.S. to early music specialization, but thankfully that has changed, Somerville said.

It means that Baroque music can be presented in a closer approximation to what it sounded like in the 17th and 18th centuries.

What’s more, the field has grown exponentially, and now includes many very talented musicians.

The sound of period instruments is distinguished by its lyricism and somewhat less robust volume. They are tuned to a lower-pitched A (415 vibrations per second as opposed to the usual 440), and that lends Baroque music played on period instruments a mellower character.

Baroque ensembles tend to be much smaller than modern symphony orchestras and choruses. The vibrancy of the music tends to be expressed more by the melody and counterpoint than by acoustics alone.

Somerville said he is thrilled at the prospect of a local Bach Society that takes music history and performance practice seriously.

“I’m really looking forward to helping Ricard create something unique,” Somerville said.

At 4 p.m. Sept. 13 at First (Scots), 53 Meeting St., the Bach Society of Charleston will present its free inaugural concert.

The program features Bordas; Scottish-born soprano Margaret Kelly Cook (who is Bordas’ wife); Somerville on harpsichord and organ; Chloe Fedor on violin; and Shirley Hunt on cello.

Bordas said the concert will be followed with a bigger production in the spring, and that the Bach Society will alternate between chamber music and large choral works. Every two years, it will organize a festival.

Members of Charleston Southern University’s Concert Singers will provide a core for the bigger Bach choir. The rest of choir members will be auditioned, Bordas said. Some of the instrumentalists will be imported from other cities.

Bordas said he hopes that, eventually, the Bach Society will collaborate with local colleges and other music ensembles.

Witty said the goal of the new organization is to compliment, not compete with, other local music groups.

“I think we’re really going to enhance classical music here in our city,” he said. “There is a wonderful audience that enjoys classical music. This is one more avenue. We’re all involved in same mission, which is to bring good music to the people of Charleston.”

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