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Celebrating Lutheran Master’s 339th Birthday

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Boston’s annual celebration of all things Bach returns to First Lutheran Church of Boston on Saturday, March 23rd. Founded 17 years ago and occurring every year since (excepting only the unfortunate cancellation of the event at the last minute during the initial COVID-19 quarantine), the annual Boston Bach Birthday draws hundreds each year in celebration of Johann Sebastian Bach and his contributions to music. Held on the Saturday nearest Bach’s March 21st birthday, it is an all-day festival of concerts featuring the music of Bach, those who influenced him, and those who were influenced by him. All musical events are free and open to the public.

Begun in 2008 as a celebration of “Boston’s Bach Organ,” the Richards, Fowkes & Co. opus 10 pipe organ traditionally features prominently at the Bach Birthday, and 2024 is no exception. Three organists will play recitals, beginning with FLC Kantor Jonathan Wessler at 9:00am. Continuing his series of “sets” of organ works by Bach (the Great Eighteen organ chorales in 2021, the Orgel-Büchlein in 2022, and the Six Trio Sonatas in 2023), this year FLC Kantor Jonathan Wessler starts off the day with the complete chorale partitas of Bach. The four authentic Bach partitas will be preceded by three earlier partitas attributed to Bach. Wessler returns to the bench for the prelude to Vespers begins at 4:15pm, offering chorale preludes by Bach, Sweelinck, and Reincken on Lutheran chorales for Lent. At 11:25 Fred MacArthur will play smaller-scale Bach organ favorites. Fred is one of Boston’s most revered organists, having studied with the legendary Boston organist and pedagogue George Faxon. And finally, organist Jerrick Cavagnaro is a new face to the Boston organ scene, albeit one with a deep résumé: not only is he the new associate director of music at Trinity Church, but he was also a competitor in the most recent Boston Bach International Organ Competition, and has just been announced as a semifinalist in the National Young Artists Competition in Organ Performance. His 1:30 program features music in the keys of E, F, and G.

Though the BBB began as an organ-centric festival, it quickly branched out into other musical media, and Wessler (who serves as artistic director of the BBB) attempts to program as wide a variety of instrumentalists as possible. In 2024 violist Maren Rothfritz returns, having last performed at the Bach Birthday in 2022, when her performance of three Bach cello suites was received with great acclaim. This year her innovative 2:55 program features a single Bach cello suite—no. 6 in D Major—interspersed with movements from Hindemith’s Sonata for Viola, Op. 33, No. 4: an unexpected but delightful pairing that illuminates both pieces. Two pieces of new music round out the program: ko’u inoa (my name is) by the Hawaiian composer Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti, and Grimalkin (2023) by Will Stackpole, the latter written especially for Rothfritz and inspired by the Bach/Hindemith pairing.

Until recently, Bach on piano has not typically been a BBB feature, as Boston audiences typically prefer historically-informed performances on harpsichord or clavichord. Nevertheless, the Bach Birthday has featured piano performances in the last three years: in 2021 professor Noam Elkies played a transcription of the first Brandenburg concerto; in 2022 April Sun and Andrus Madsen performed Rheinberger’s transcription of the Goldberg Variations on two authentic 19th-century grand pianos; and last year Artem Belogurov performed Bach on a reconstruction of a Baroque piano. Such historically-informed performance of Bach on piano is becoming more in vogue, and the Bach Birthday is pleased to be a part of the movement towards a broader understanding of historical performance. This year, pianist Calvin Kotrba will continue the perform Bach’s French Suite No. 6 in E Major at 2:30pm upon First Lutheran’s Steinway model M.

No celebration of Bach’s music would be complete without at least one cantata, and this year’s BBB features two. At 3:45, baritone Richard Giarusso performs an old friend, Bach’s solo cantata BWV 82 Ich habe genug, accompanied by a small ensemble. Giarusso is no stranger to the Boston musical scene, having studied at Harvard and now serving as Dean of Academic Affairs at the New England Conservatory. The second cantata will be heard at the 5pm Vespers service: Bach’s tour-de-force for Palm Sunday, BWV 182 Himmelskönig sei willkommen. Vespers will also feature a delightful festival Magnificat scored for the same ensemble as the cantata. Having been found in the Düben collection alongside works by the north German master Dieterich Buxtehude, the Magnificat was once assumed to be his; however this attribution has since been overturned on stylistic grounds, and the work has joined the ranks of compositions by that most prolific of all composers, Anonymous.

The Young People’s Concert is a recent addition to the day’s program, and a well-received one. This year’s 10:35am concert features youth from First Lutheran Church as well as several musicians from the Boston String Academy. The repertoire includes the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria performed on violin and harpsichord, Bach’s G major cello suite (with a different cellist playing each movement), and the famous Chaconne in d, arranged for string ensemble. The fact that this concert is so well-received each year is a testament to the enduring nature of Bach’s music, and it is always encouraging to see young people engaging with such brilliant music.

The day concludes as it began, with organ music. The Vespers postlude will be Bach’s Toccata and fugue in d, BWV 565. This famous piece is rarely performed in church owing to its connotations with the phantasmagoric. Popular sentiments notwithstanding, the composition stands well on its own merits as a late example of the stylus phantasticus, and deserves a wider hearing in a musically serious and historically informed context.

Any overview of the Bach Birthday would be remiss to omit the famous German Lunch, served at noon (tickets $15 at the door). The menu shifts yearly, but frequently includes pretzels, sausage, sauerkraut, sauerbraten, potato salad, spätzel, and other delicious German fare. It is not to be missed!

As always, concertgoers are free to come and go throughout the day as they are able. While some attend but one or two events, and others stay for the whole day, all leave the Boston Bach Birthday having been musically and spiritually edified. More information, including the complete list of repertoire for the day, is available at flc-boston.org/bach.

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