Boston honored Bach’s 338th birthday in a glorious all-day celebration at the First Lutheran Church with sacred Baroque music, but also lectures, a German lunch, along with secular pieces; an evening Vespers closed the festivities.
Jonathan Wessler, the church’s Kantor, is a consummate musician who holds degrees in organ and sacred music from Eastman School of Music, Notre Dame and Oberlin Conservatory. He had his capable hands full, besides playing all six of the Bach Trio Sonatas on the organ, he also served as accompanist for numerous pieces featuring four young violinists, a flutist and soprano.
The concert began at 8:30 with the first three of Bach’s Trio Sonatas. The first notes on an organ never fail to instill a sense of awe in the listener, the instrument presents such a full and unique sound, the low notes penetrating deep into one’s very bones. For those who believe, there is a conviction that God must be in the realm and speaking to them. Organ music also recalls the big events in life: birth, marriage, death; all commemorated in church. For those who don’t believe, the sound of an organ still connotes something larger than life.
The church’s Richards, Fowkes & Co. pipe organ from 2000, perhaps one of the finest Baroque organs in New England, takes its tonal and construction plans from Bach era organs, and hence brings a unique authenticity to Sebastian’s organ music. This organ also presents a unique challenge to American organists, who are unused to a flat pedalboard.
The Trio Sonatas are considered to be amongst Bach’s most difficult compositions for the organ. Someone described them as keeping track of three children all going into three different directions all at the same time. They are pieces of exquisite beauty, mostly playful, at times solemn, each has three movements, three independent parts in two manuals and obbligato pedal. Wessler gave flawless and emotionally moving renditions; playing all six in a single day was a gigantic accomplishment. The audience gave him a standing ovation.
The young people’s concert featured Gabrielle Whidden and three Timko sisters: Linnea, Magdalena and Aurelia, on violin, performing well-known Bach pieces, such as the concerto for two violins in D, accompanied by Jonathan Wessler. Elijah Krikava, who is a fifth grader, played J.S. Bach’s famous Prelude in C adapted for the organ, all to great applause.
Peter Krasinski, who is a spokesperson for the pipe organ community, gave a brief tutorial explaining the instrument, shown on a large screen, and then accompanied the legendary French film “The Red Balloon” on the organ, much as was done in the silent movie era. The film has both funny and sad moments, poignantly accompanied by Krasinski’s tour de force improvisations, which were based on J.S. Bach motifs. For his finale, he asked the congregation to stand and, in Lutheran tradition, sing along with “The Organ Hymn,” (text by Krasinski).
The day continued with the first of two guest organists. Rosalind Mohnsen has performed nationwide and internationally at numerous venues, including the National Shrine in Washington, Woolsey Hall at Yale and Boston’s First Night. She served as interim Organist and Director at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. Her hour-long program was varied, besides J.S. Bach, there were pieces by Kimberger, Tunder, Kittle and a very virtuosic prelude by Respighi based on Bach’s Ich hab’mein Sach heimgestellt. She rose to thunderous applause and had to reappear for a second bow. Later in the day, Artem Belogurov, the Baroque piano soloist complemented her not only on her beautiful playing, but also her registration. Many Baroque pieces give ample latitude to the organist on which stops to employ.
The audience consisted not only of the congregation, but also of various area organists as well as Boston aficionados of early music. The Deutscher Mittagstisch (German lunch) featured Bratwurst, Sauerkraut and Apfelstrudel, making the general collegiality evident.
After Wessler dispatched the remaining three Bach Trios to great acclaim. Kerstin Schwarz, the German builder of the Cristofori requica, who came all the way from Halle, delivered a bried lecture. The Cristofori was in essence the first piano, an instrument much favored by J.S. Artem Belogurov’s exquisite Cristofori debut is reviewed HERE.
Kateri Chambers, a graduate of Peabody Conservatory, the Guildhall School in London, Boston University and John Hopkins, made exquisite music on a transverse (wooden) flute. This wind instrument is harder to master than the more powerful modern flute, and that combined with the fact that these flutes need constant maintenance, means that they fell out of favor about 100 years ago. Besides J.S. Bach, she offered short examples by Telemann, CPE Bach, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and Anna Bon.
Soprano Sarah Bellott, a frequent cantata soloist made much of Bach’s Ich hab genug, Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben (from St. Matthew Passion) and Handel’s Süße Stille, sanfte Quelle with Jonathan Wessler’s sensitive accompaniment on the Cristofori.
The second guest organist, Korean Heejin Kim, took the prize for interpretation of the 2022 Boston Bach International Organ Competition, among her many awards. Her music degrees are from Seoul, Korea, Hochschule für Musik in Hamburg and Notre Dame. She ordered her selections on the key signatures of B-A-C-H. Besides Bach, she paid homage to Krebs, Mendelssohn (in D), Schumann (in G minor), and finally, the iconic Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. Her precision and musicality earned enthusiastic applause.
And Jonathan Wessler’s day was not finished yet, as he directed the choir and instrumentalists, in masterful readings of BWV 1, Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern and Schutz’s Uppsala Magnificat, giving a fitting climax to this glorious day in Solemn Vespers for the Annunciation of Our Lord.