The pews in the St Nicholas Church may not have been filled, but the opening concert by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir at the Leipzig Bach Festival received thundering applause.
Directed by Bach Archive President, Ton Koopman, the wind instrumentalists were especially applauded, as oboes, horns, and trumpets — all historical instruments players, who had to master many difficult virtuoso passages while adapting to the church’s acoustics.
“How nice that there are people here,” said Mayor Burkhard Jung in his welcoming address.
Originally scheduled for May, the Bach Festival had to be canceled due to the COVID pandemic, with concerts switched to online streaming at short notice instead.
Because of COVID-19, only a small audience was allowed to be present at the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig
“I’m proud that we kept our nerve and went through with it,” Michael Maul, artistic director of the Bach Festival, told DW.
More than 100 events were originally planned. “I was at least able to save the centerpiece of the festival, the “Messiah” cycle with 12 choral symphonic concerts, which were very costly to realize,” Maul says with relief.
A total of 30 cantatas, three oratorios and the St. Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach will be heard in the “Bach’s Messiah” cycle with well-known Bach orchestras and performers, including Masaaki Suzuki, Vaclav Luks, Justin Doyle, and the St Thomas Boys Choir of Leipzig. They will be performed either live in front of an audience or via live stream.
Attracting more than 70,000 visitors each year — with 40% from abroad — the Bach Festival is the largest international classical music festival in Germany. Visitors come to experience Bach’s music at the original venues.
The international crowd may be absent this year, but diehard Bach fans have nevertheless found their way here. “I already know of visitors from Monaco, Japan and America. They have pulled through and made their way to Leipzig,” says Maul.
Bach in cycles
Bach cantatas are particularly popular with the public. In line with the festival’s 2021 theme “Redemption,” Maul has come up with a cycle of cantatas for this year around Jesus of Nazareth.
While Bach didn’t write his own “Messiah” oratorio like George Frideric Handel, various pieces by Bach could certainly be put together to form a large oratorio of their own. “You’ll find cantatas all over the place that are very close to the biblical events — a large-scale impact story of Jesus in musical images,” explains Maul.
Painter Michael Triegel provided his painting “Crucifixion” to illustrate the various stages of Jesus’ life
The pieces cover the life and times of Jesus starting with the promise and birth of the Messiah, the Sermon on the Mount, the calling of the disciples and the various parables and miracles, through to the entry into Jerusalem, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, according to biblical texts by Martin Luther. If you put the 12 concerts from the cycle together, the whole is as extensive as Richard Wagner’s famous opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung, explains Maul.
Bach fan: Pope Benedict
For the chronology of events, Maul had referred to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth. This saw him corresponding often with the Pope, who revealed his love for the music of the Protestant Bach.
Benedict even wrote a foreword for the Bach Festival in which he highlighted the timeless impact of Bach’s music as an ambassador of a “faith that has been extinguished in many places.”
“It was a very nice preface to the cycle, and I also know that he is now in the Vatican following the cycle via our streaming service,” Maul adds.
Christmas Oratorio in summer
The opening weekend kicked off with the promise and announcement of Jesus’ birth up to the miracles he performed.
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio that focuses on Jesus’ birth was performed by Thomaskantor Gotthold Schwarz with the St Thomas Boys Choir and the Academy for Early Music Berlin, or Akamus for short. “It’s strange to do the work now in the summer, but the moment you get into the biblical story of the Christmas Gospel, it doesn’t seem so out of place,” Schwarz tells DW.
The pandemic had also affected choir rehearsals, with Schwarz being able to rehearse only with small groups. Other members were connected online. “This way we managed to keep the choir together, which was the most important thing, with everyone being given musical tasks.”
The Christmas Oratorio, which is part of the standard repertoire of the choir also known locally as the “Thomaner,” was actually planned before the pandemic but could not be performed.
“Boys who were still in the soprano or alto at the last performance have since slipped into the male voice,” says Schwarz. However, this has always been a natural progression in the choir. “It’s always a new beginning.”
The cantor never imagined that he would ultimately be allowed to sing with 40 Thomaner in the sanctuary of the Thomaskirche. “This is definitely a joyful event for all of the Thomaner.”
The audience was also enthusiastic. At the end of the concert, many flocked to the front and rousingly cheered both the orchestra and choir.
The Bach Festival will run through to June 20. All concerts will be streamed and can be accessed for a year after the festival on a new platform, bachfromhome.live. This joint project by the Thuringian Bach Weeks, the Bach Festival Leipzig and the Köthener Bach Festival Days is for the benefit of all Bach fans worldwide who have been unable to travel here to attend the concerts in person.
Adapted from the German by Brenda Haas