When the late Oliver Sacks, a professed lover of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, subjected himself to the claustrophobia-inducing MRI machine so that researchers might map brain activity as he listened to music, the results affirmed the neurologist’s musical preferences.
A passage from Bach’s B-Minor Mass caused Sacks’ brain to light up with activity. A passage from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis didn’t.
“Sorry Ludwig,” he remarked through a smile.
Many music lovers share Sacks’ enthusiasm for Bach. Their brains light up, too. The composer did more than any other to codify Western music elements of harmony, counterpoint, tuning, notation and more. He wrote with feeling, capturing the expanse of the human condition, and he created some of the most versatile music in the world. It almost doesn’t matter what instruments are used to play it.
Bach’s output was enormous. He wrote hundreds of secular works and even more sacred works. He wrote for solo instruments, small and large ensembles and choirs. He wrote in nearly every genre (except, notably, opera). Even his keyboard exercises are masterpieces.
Though he was largely forgotten in the decades after his death in 1750, Bach was rediscovered by Mozart and Mendelssohn, who faithfully copied the Old Master’s scores for practice and employed Bach’s techniques of fugue writing and other forms of counterpoint in their own works.
Today, Bach is hailed by most classical music enthusiasts as the supreme composer of Western music.
Ricard Bordas is one of the enthusiasts who puts his money where his mouth is. Bordas is the founder of the Bach Society of Charleston and its annual Bach Festival, now in its third year. The festival is presenting five programs over four days, March 1-4.
The first, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 1, features the Charleston Baroque Orchestra, assembled by violinist Cynthia Roberts and cellist Phoebe Carrai, both Juilliard faculty members. The orchestra will perform works by Handel, Corelli and Bach at First (Scots) Presbyterian Church.
An organ recital by Christopher Jacobson follows at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 2, at St. Michael’s Church.
At 3 p.m. Saturday, March 3, the Bach Festival presents a Young Artists Recital at Bishop Gadsden Chapel on James Island. That evening is the big event: a 7 p.m. performance of the St. John Passion at First (Scots) Presbyterian Church featuring the Charleston Baroque Orchestra, Charleston Baroque Voices and soloists, including Rufus Müller as the Evangelist. Bordas will conduct.
The festival concludes with a program at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 4, at Holy Spirit Catholic Church on Johns Island, featuring Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 and selections from the St. John Passion.
Bordas is an accomplished countertenor from Barcelona, Spain, who trained at London’s Royal Academy of Music and has often performed music by Bach. Today, he teaches at Charleston Southern University.
“Growing up in Barcelona, I had the opportunity to explore and sing the motets and cantatas by the German master composer with youth choirs and, later, with the Orfeó Català, which is the Catalan National Choir,” Bordas wrote in an email. “The exquisite simplicity of the chorales together with the complexity of the larger choruses and solo declamations captivated and mesmerized us. Many times we sang these works in Catalan, which did not lessen their effect.”
He said the highlight of his performing career was the opportunity in 1994 to sing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion under the baton of Paul Goodwin and directed by Jonathan Miller for the BBC. “For this production we had to memorize fully every chorus and chorale,” Bordas recalled. “For those who have sung these works, one can imagine how challenging this was. However, I was able to experience fully how Bach paints every word, how he treats the text with sublime phrasing, how unpredictable the harmonies can be, even for the most experienced of performers.”
Goodwin, a leading proponent of authentic baroque performance practice, conducted a small orchestra of musicians playing period instruments and a chamber choir. Bach’s music is grand, but it is not generally meant to be performed by the large orchestras and choruses modern audiences have become accustomed to — at least so say the traditionalists.
For the Bach Festival programs, Bordas and his team are sticking with the old ways.
“I was delighted as the organization was getting under way that the board supported Ricard’s wish to use period instruments for his performances — so right for Charleston,” said board member and musician Murray Forbes Somerville. “As (English choral master) Edward Higginbottom pointed out in his (2015) concert at First Scots, 18th-century music — on-18th century instruments, in an 18th-century city — is a very rare experience in the U.S.”
The St. John Passion is one of two surviving sacred oratorios by Bach, first performed on Good Friday 1724 at St. Nicholas Church. It’s arranged in two parts and derives heavily from the Gospel of John.
For this performance, the demanding role of the Evangelist will be sung by tenor Muller, who was part of the 1994 Goodwin/Miller presentation of the St. Matthew Passion.
“It is remarkable how much J.S. Bach Passions, after almost three centuries, connect with and deeply move modern audiences from different cultures and beliefs,” Bordas said.