Rushing to set up his audio equipment and camera in the 53-degree chill, Tedmon Tran prepared to perform for the Bach Week Instrumental Master Class. He had just finished up a 9 a.m. Zoom class and was beginning to feel nervous about being an example for students who would tune in to the livestream. Despite the nerves, he felt a twinge of excitement. He would be using a baroque era bow for his piece, which he had borrowed to achieve an authentic historic sound.
After beginning to play, he didn’t realize all the students were able to see him vigorously rubbing his hands together to keep warm between Bach cello notes.
Whether or not you enjoy classical music, the name Bach is recognizable to every generation. Because of the fame and musical legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach, every January the Cal Poly Music Department features a week-long event called Bach Week. The event consists of guest lectures, master classes and performances by music students and faculty at Cal Poly.
The event is one of the largest that the Music Department puts on during each school year, but the 2021 Bach Week looked and sounded different from prior years.
Rather than audience members attending lectures and performances in-person at the Performing Arts Center (PAC) and Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in downtown San Luis Obispo, attendees enjoyed the event virtually from the comfort of their homes.
Bach Week 2021 took place online from Jan. 19 to 23. Each event was live-streamed with viewers able to tune in and comment as each performance and class was taking place.
“Our Tuesday event was viewed by far more people than usually attend our in-person version,” Bach Week co-director David Arrivée said, “It is, after all, much more convenient to open up a browser window than drive, at night and in the middle of the week, to the Cal Poly campus.”
This year’s Bach Week was still able to feature the basic components of previous year’s Bach Weeks, including an Akademie lecture, Chamber Concert, master classes and a Finale. However, some components were removed due to the pandemic.
“[This year] we didn’t host a guest artist Chamber Concert on Friday, and our Saturday Finale did not bring together students, faculty and professional guest artists in a collaborative performance. The pandemic made that impossible,” Arrivée said.
Bach Week developed out of the earlier “Bach in the Mission,” an annual concert started in 2011 to give Cal Poly student musicians the chance to work with faculty and local professionals to perform the vocal and instrumental music of Bach. As the popularity of the concert increased, it progressed into an official week-long event in 2015.
Each year, the first two events of the week have a theme coinciding with the pieces of Bach’s work that will be performed. For 2021, both events centered around “The Musical Offering,” a collection of works composed in 1747 and dedicated to Frederick the Great of Prussia.
“Both the music itself and the unique event that gave rise to the music, offer us a very rare glimpse into Bach’s relationship with a changing world,” Arrivée said.
Arrivée’s Akademie lecture focused mainly on an encounter Bach had with Fredrick The Great, which led to the composition of “The Musical Offering.” This event is among the best documented in Bach’s life, with many German newspapers having reported on the encounter at the time.
Arrivée’s lecture gave a detailed background and set the scene for the next Bach Week event, the Chamber Concert. This year’s chamber ensemble consisted of four performers, Suzanne Duffy playing the flute, Emily Lanzone on violin, Paul Woodring on harpsichord and Laura Gaynon on cello.
To better represent the baroque sound, minor changes were made to some of the instruments, the most obvious being a wooden headstock featured on Suzanne Duffy’s otherwise silver flute.
Following the performance of “The Musical Offering,” online attendees were given the chance for a question-and-answer session with Arrivée, Duffy, Lanzone, Woodring and Gaynon.
When asked when she first played Bach as a cellist, Laura Gaynon said, “The Bach cello suites are what we grew up on. Even though they’re very complex musically, the first suite is simple enough that even after you’ve played for only a couple of years you can enjoy it and start learning the notes.”
The Instrumental Master Class and the Vocal Master Class took place on Bach Week’s second day. The Instrumental Master Class allowed viewers to receive coaching from guest artists Andrew McIntosh, baroque violinist, and Paul Sherman, conductor, oboist and musicologist, about the instrumental repertoire from the Baroque era, as well as to gain insight into the style and nuance of giving a historically informed performance.
As an example for the class, Tedmon Tran, a Cal Poly undergraduate music student, performed on his cello. Tran performed short pieces for audience members to showcase what was discussed in the class.
“The master class is a way to simultaneously learn more about the concept and improve our understanding of the repertoire,” Tran said, “In person, it would have been easier for the master class leader to ‘diagnose’ or immediately note any techniques or form [in our playing] that needs fixing.”
“Performing virtually did lift some performance anxiety and stress for me, but it was odd to not have real eyes in the audience examining your every move,” Tran said.
Similarly to the Instrumental Master Class, the Vocal Master Class offered the chance for those interested in vocals to receive coaching from guest artist Rebecca Myers, a solo and ensemble soprano.
The finale of Bach Week took place on Jan. 23, featuring a short pre-concert lecture by Scott Glysson, co-director of Bach Week and Director of Choral Activities and Vocal Studies at Cal Poly, covering Bach’s works The Motets.
Following Glysson’s lecture, audience members viewed a performance of “Lobet den Herrn, Alle Heiden,” one of Bach’s Motets, by the Cal Poly Chamber Choir. Glysson expressed that the finale performance by the Chamber Choir was a nice change of pace from the previous year’s collective finales.
“Now this year is much, much different.” Glysson said. “It was only a year ago that we stood on the stage of the beautiful Performing Arts Center and performed one of the most timeless pieces of all time, J.S. Bach’s B Minor Mass. This year, we’ve had to modify things quite extremely.”
Arrivée and Glysson began facing concerns about staging Bach Week in-person way back in March of 2020. The two ultimately decided that the tradition should not be ended by the pandemic and began to strategize on how to approach it virtually and keep it meaningful and effective.
“Was the event a success? Absolutely. We made great music, explored the world and context of the music, and shared all of that with our community,” Arrivée said. “Plus, we did all of that under unprecedented and difficult circumstances.”