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The Bach to the Baroque

The Bach Collegium marks its 10th season and celebrates the joys and nuances of “early music”

By Jim Fester

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-11-03


Dr. Daniel Reuning, the founder and the Artistic Director of the Bach Collegium in Fort Wayne, probably has to deal with a particular “chicken-or-the-egg” question when it comes to talking about the type of music the Bach Collegium performs…

Kicking off its 10th season with a performance at the Zion Lutheran Church on Saturday, November 12, the Bach Collegium is the area’s only choral and instrumental early music ensemble, and uses J. S. Bach as its model composer. In this case, “early music” means the Collegium’s performances reflect “period performance practices” — the music is usually performed in a space like a church, where it would have been performed when it was composed; and it is played on instruments that reflect the characteristics of the Baroque period.

Reuning formed the Bach Collegium in 2001 with a little help from his friends. After 31 years teaching at the Concordia Seminary as Director of Choral Music and teacher of liturgy, Reuning retired in 1999 and decided to complete a doctorate he had started several years earlier at the University of Illinois. It was there that he became acquainted with the performance of period instruments. “After graduating in 2001 with a doctorate in musicology, I decided I better make use of this knowledge and founded the Bach Collegium, which would specialize in performing choral music with period instruments,” he says. The group held its first meeting in January 2002, and by October of that year had incorporated, auditioned singers and instrumentalists, and were rehearsing.

For the November 12 performance, the baroque ensemble will be made up of 40 singers and 14 professional instrumentalists, playing the Baroque natural trumpet, the Baroque flute and recorder, the Baroque oboe, Baroque strings as well as organ and harpsicord.

So, since period instruments and performance practices are so essential to what the Bach Collegium does (after all, they’re the whole point of the thing), the “chicken-or-the-egg” question that Reuning often finds himself being asked is, was the music composed in order to accomodate the instruments and venues, or vice-versa.

Reuning laughs. “I don’t know,” he says in a manner that suggests he’s long since stopped wondering about it, and doesn’t think it much matters much anyway. What does matter to Reuning is that Baroque music simply becomes more “articulate” and “alive” when performed with early instruments. “With modern instruments, everything is so legato, so smooth,” he says. “Everything is so even in volume and texture, but with the early instruments, there’s this inequality of volume and texture that became a delight. There’s a lot of differences in levels of legato and staccato simply because of the bow of the instrument.”

The tops of early bows, Reuning explains, were convex — they bowed slightly outwards in relation to the horizontal horse hair of the bow. In contrast, the top of a modern bow is concave. “With modern bow, the hand can apply pressure and even out the pressure of the bow so that the volume remains consistent,” he says. “With the early bow, you could not apply pressure, you just held the bow without any sort of ability to press down on it and keep it even. So as you drew the bow, it would be heavier on the ‘down side’, and lighter on the ‘up side’, because you had gravity working with you.”

This gave the music a quality that Reuning likens to formal, ballroom dancing. “You have the strong beat on your right foot, and the lighter beat on your left foot, like the waltz — strong light light; strong light light.”

But setting also matters. In the Baroque era, the music would most likely have been performed in a church. “But when you went from a very vibrant venue with lots of echo, into a theater auditorium with little echo, the instruments had to be louder in order to accommodate that,” Reuning says.

The difference in dynamics had an effect on the singing as well. The pitch of Baroque music is a bit lower. “Singers then, as singers do now, imitate the accompaniment,” Reuning explains. “With the sound lowered, you don’t have to strain as much. The sopranos and tenors are very grateful for just even that half-step lower. So it lightens the pressure of the voice and so lightens the volume of it, and with the articulation of the bow, you can hardly help but copy it.”

As you might guess, the period instruments the Bach Collegium uses are somewhat rare. There are several musicians in the Fort Wayne area that play them, and other musicians are “imported” from orchestras in Cleveland, Chicago, and Madison. But it’s IU’s music school in Bloomington, Reuning says, that makes the Bach Collegium possible. “The catalyst for this whole thing really has been IU Bloomington. They have a whole department that concentrates on early instruments and early music. Several grad students and faculty are part of our orchestra.”

To mark its 10th season, the Bach Collegium will be performing a series of special concerts, beginning with the performance on November 12 at the Zion Lutheran Church. The group will be performing favorite excerpts from J.S. Bach’s B minor Mass, his Christmas and Easter Oratorios, and pieces of Brahms, Eccard and Telemann. In keeping with the style of the era, the singers will perform in various positions within the church — sometimes in front, sometimes in the galleries — all designed to reinforce the structure of the movement of music. Reuning will conduct the Bach, and Patricia Kennedy, the Bach Collegium’s Associate Director, will conduct the Brahms, with Michael Hollman performing on Zion’s Grand Casavant pipe organ.

The Bach Collegium 10th Season Opening Night

Saturday 12 November at 7:00pm
Zion Lutheran Church, 2313 S. Hanna Street

Tickets are $15 (or $80 for a season pass) and are available online or at the door. For more details, visit bachcollegium.org or call 485-2143.

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