Bach Week Festival Review- An interview with Conductor Richard Webster

The Bach Week Festival, now in its 43rd season, and running through May 6, 2016, is one of Chicagoland’s most beloved musical events, enlisting musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra, and other top-tier ensembles on the same stage, and featuring fine instrumental and vocal soloists both from the Chicago area and distinguished guest artists. It is currently presented both at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, as well as at Anderson Chapel on the campus of North Park University, 5149 N. Spaulding, Chicago. It was first organized in 1974 with the help of Richard Webster, who became its music director the following year, remaining in that position to this day. He still returns to produce, direct and conduct from Trinity Church in Boston, where he serves as director of music.

Maestro Richard Webster; photo courtesy of Bach Week Festival

  This reviewer took in the opening night concert, on Friday, April 22,2016, which included two Bach Cantatas, BWV 106 and BWV 66, in which the chamber ensemble Bella Voce joined the Bach Week Festival Chorus. The concert also included BWV 1041, Bach Concerto in A minor, for violin and orchestra, featuring violinist Desiree Ruhstrat of the Lincoln Trio, who was a soulful, tasteful and spellbinding musician.The entire evening’s performance was absolutely lovely, the voices pure and clear, the beginnings and endings sharp and well-delineated, the whole working as one coordinated ensemble under the conductor. The faces of the performers were rapt with concentration and expression as the music soared through the splendid acoustics of that gem of a concert hall. Tenor Klaus Georg substituted for Hoss Brock, singing a short aria in Cantata 106 and two duets with mezzo-soprano Nina Heebink in Cantata 66. Also performing in the cantatas was bass David Govertson. Following the concert itself, Nichols Hall hosted an intimate candlelight concert entitled “Canons, Imitation and Flights of Fancy”, with music of the recorder, played by Lisette Kielson and violin de gamba,  played by Phillip Serna of the group L’Ensemble Portique.  This romantic repertoire encompassed works from the late middle ages through the twentieth century.

Bach Week Festival musicians; photo courtesy of Elliott Mandel

BWV 106, “God’s time is the best time”, a funeral cantata probably written in 1707 or 1708, is inarguably the best known and most admired of Bach’s earliest cantatas. The piece has been called remarkable both for the intensity of its expression, for its many original characteristics, and because it was created by a young and essentially self-taught composer. Bach 66, “All hearts rejoice”, was one of two created for the 1724 Easter celebrations.  The work has been described as” bubbling “ with energy and invention, with the closing chorale basically an extended musical “amen”. BWV 1041 may have been composed as early as 1717; other scholars put the date as late as 1729 or 1730. The piece is in three movements, with the last being described as “perhaps Bach’s most animated and carefree movement in the minor mode”.

Subsequent to the Sunday, April 24, concert in Nichols Hall, and in anticipation of this year’s Final Bach Week Festival concert, to be held Friday, May 6, at North Park’s Anderson Chapel, this reviewer had the opportunity to interview Richard Webster. His thoughtful and insightful comments are paraphrased in pertinent part below:

Violinist Desiree Ruhstrat and other musicians of the Bach Week Festival; photo courtesy of Elliot Mandel

Webster, a wonderfully expressive maestro, explained that the directions he gives the orchestra are a combination of basic universal conducting techniques coupled with each conductor’s own personal style. The right hand controls the beat while the left hand beckons forth the music. What’s important is the musical result, not the “antics”. The gestures dictate the motive of the music. He has learned that conducting is the art of prescribing what is about to happen; the players must learn when to come in. The conductor’s face is the most powerful conducting tool- he or she must know what to do with eyebrows, eyes, even with facial muscles.

Richard Webster, conductor; photo courtesy of Bach Week Festival

The job of any conductor is to forge a group of individuals into a cohesive community that play well together. For the Bach Festival, only musicians who are cooperative and not prima donnas are engaged.  He knows the personalities and the dispositions of these artists. These professionals already have a very high level of musical ability as well as a great love for Bach, and are pre-disposed to do a wonderful job together.Webster does not rule “as a dictator”. He likes to solicit input from the players and he listens to their advice, but in the end, the buck (or the baton) stops with him, else there would be “anarchy”.

 Of course, the driving force for the performers and for the conductor as well is to serve the composer. The details are all-important, and the participants have very passionate ideas as to how to perform their ideas. He hopes the interpretation they give to the public comes from the music itself; the music is telling him what he needs to make it transcendent. Unpredictability is the friend of inspiration. He tries to be as expressive and unpredictable as possible, while thoroughly grounded in the score, because his role is not primarily to inspire but to facilitate. The fundamental sense of inspiration comes from the music of Bach. However, in the time of Bach, and with this composer in particular, basic instruction is left out of the score; there is very little articulation. There has been a lot of musical research about how to play Bach, and there are lots of passionate feelings about it. However, "In the end, the music is still and forever, that of Bach; he shines through!"

Jason Moy, harpsichord; David Cunliffe, cello; Collins Trier, doublebass; photo courtesy of Elliot Mandel



For information and tickets, go to the Bachweek website






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