All about the repertoire

Helmuth RillingSeveral years ago, Helmuth Rilling asked me, “Why do you spend your summers at the Bach Festival? How do you justify leaving your family, your work, and flying out to Oregon for three weeks, year after year?” Without hesitation, I answered, “It’s the repertoire.” I wanted to learn Bach, from the inside out, and this was the best way to do it—singing the major works, repeatedly; singing the cantatas; observing Helmuth himself working with young singers and conductors who did not know Bach--- watching new classes of them, year after year, encountering the same problems, having to learn the same lessons and techniques. And learning as well the other major works by other composers which Helmuth programmed because of their relationship to Bach’s legacy-- learning them through Helmuth’s eyes and ears, with his understanding of their origins and of Bach’s influence. The ten or so summers I spent with the Oregon Bach Festival are some of the most important music education I ever received—and it was all about the repertoire. Chicago Chorale is all about the repertoire, too. As our mission statement says, we are devoted to high-level performances of the best repertoire we can handle—acknowledged masterpieces, and newer works that we discover and like, and that deserve exposure. I regard repertoire choice as one of the very most important, and exacting, aspects of my role with the group. Truly, I agonize over it. So much music, so little time…

I feel that our singers and listeners (and conductor) need constant reminders of what is good, of what is basic to our art—and I draw on my experience with Helmuth Rilling in enabling this. Not unsurprisingly, I find a metaphor for these reminders in the structure of Lutheran worship. One of Martin Luther’s great contributions was to translate the Bible into contemporary German, so that everyone could read it and base their understanding of their faith on the actual received words, rather than solely on the opinions and decisions of their priests. Each Sunday, we hear readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Epistles, and from the Gospels—all of them biblical. To this, then, would be added contemporary reflections, both through musical settings of poetry, and the sermon.

I view Bach’s music as representing this “bible”-- as a compendium of all that is good in our music, the structure, the rules; as the highest level combination of intellect, heart, theology, craft. Why Bach? I don’t know; I just now that he rings true for me—as he does for most serious, committed musicians. He is our gold standard, and he tests us most demandingly.   Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau famously told a young singer, “Learn to sing Bach. Then you can sing anything.” I whole-heartedly subscribe to this notion, on all kinds of fronts. Sing Bach, and you are in a position to evaluate the rest of what you sing, to judge its merits: Bach provides musicians with a yardstick, as Shakespeare does for theater people. Sing Bach, and you are in a position to tackle the technical demands of almost any other composer. Experience first hand the extraordinary emotional expressiveness of Bach, and you are better able to judge whether other composers even come close to his level of communication. Many do, of course; many others fall far short, however, counterfeiting actual feeling, actual joy and sorrow, and feeding the listener instead on musical treacle. Sing Bach, and you share in the whole world of human striving and accomplishment —and are better able to evaluate the accomplishments of other composers, better able to decide whether they are worth the time and energy one must put in, to perform them.

Happily, I observe that the audience is never ”Bached-out”-- any more than they are ever “Shakespeared-out”. All the way from the high-level performances presented by Music of the Baroque and Soli Deo Gloria, to the abridged Passions presented by small churches in the suburbs, people continue to perform Bach, and to listen to it. Nearly every concert pianist who comes to Chicago, includes Bach keyboard works on their recital programs; new recordings of Bach works come out every week. His staying power, over the centuries, is simply amazing. He continues to inform, critique, enthrall, across the centuries and through changing styles of performance and presentation. I also observe that experiencing Bach improves me, and my choirs-- he tests us, shows us where we need to work harder. Everything else we do is transformed by our regular encounters with Bach. He keeps us honest.