The Bach Institute

As many of you know, this week, our Artistic Director Peggy Pearson is serving as a faculty member and the co-director of the Bach Institute, a collaboration between Emmanuel Music, Winsor Music, and Oberlin College and Conservatory. The Institute is a January-term intensive in which students immerse themselves in the vast repertoire of Bach cantatas that are performed every week by the musicians of Emmanuel Music, many of whom serve on the Institute faculty. Students receive private coachings and lessons on individual arias, perform in the Sunday cantata series at Emmanuel Church, and perform their arias, duets, and a full cantata in the final concert, which will be held on Monday, January 26th, 7:30pm at Emmanuel Church. Tickets are free, but seats are limited, so reserve your spot here.

Currently in their second week, the students are performing their arias in five outreach concerts hosted and facilitated by Winsor Music's outreach and education programs. Peggy spoke to us about why she and co-director Kendra Colton started the institute five years ago, why it matters, and what she loves about it.


What excites you about the Bach Institute?

The Bach Institute is a lifelong dream. The cantata repertoire is not generally studied by instrumentalists or vocalists at the conservatory level, but it's one of the most beautiful and massive repertoires there is.

Why is that?

It's extremely challenging on many levels. For vocalists, this is some of the most  difficult music in the repertoire, and for both instrumentalists and vocalists, it's a challenge to create long lines, and to figure out how to phrase such complicated music. Sometimes when we are working out phrasing, we might find that the whole opening ritornello is one big phrase (not twenty!), and part of the struggle is generating the energy to get through such long lines.

Another complication is that, often, the vocal or obbligato line might be doing one thing, and the continuo might be doing another; you have to be open to allowing that to happen, to letting it be complicated and contradictory. That can also be true of the way the music and text fit together; sometimes, it seems as if they are openly contradicting one another, but when you look closely at those contradictions, you might find entirely new layers of meaning to the piece.

How do you address that with the students?

This is difficult! A lot of the time, there is more than one viewpoint expressed by the faculty, and there's a reason for that: there's often more than one viewpoint expressed in the music. You should be able to do it in different ways.  The music is so rich and multi-layered, leaving opportunities for many different interpretations. These arias are technically and emotionally complicated and full; it's not easy to figure these pieces out on any level.


What do you think sets the Bach Institute apart from something a conservatory might offer?

The students do benefit from discussion, commentary and conversation with incredible Bach scholars like Robert Levin, John Harbison and Pamela Dellal, but there are a couple of  distinguishing factors. One is that they get a great deal of one-on-one time with the amazing teacher Kendra Colton! The other is that they get so much practical performance experience. Whenever possible, the students get to perform in the weekly cantatas at Emmanuel, with our wonderful music director, Ryan Turner, conducting. They see how we put together a cantata in a few hours, and get a feel for what the cantatas are like as a whole, instead of the collection of arias that they work on during the institute.  

I also always look forward to the outreach concerts, because it serves so many purposes and people at the same time. It’s a very appreciative and under-served audience, and the students really benefit from performing every aria at least twice before the final concert. We also do a children's concert at the Mather school in Dorchester, and the students write a children's cantata based on an easy, familiar tune that the kindergartners always love. This year it is Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star the Cantata, and the final chorus will be sung by five year-olds!


What are you most looking forward to about the final concert?

It's always astonishing how much progress the students make in two weeks, and of course that is very exciting for us. In addition, it always makes me happy to be in the position to introduce this repertoire to an audience; it’s a Bach Hit Parade, with one gem after another.

Some of us have been playing Bach at Emmanuel for so long that we tend to think of the cantatas by their numbers, and we'll get so excited when people start tossing numbers around, the way Beatles fans do when you start listing hits: "Oh man, I love 159!"... "Oh, that duet in 3 is the best!" This concert is like that, just one great aria after another; it's a Bach lover's heaven.