Bach Akademie Charlotte

Bach Akademie of Charlotte Tours the World for the First Time

Halfway through the current Bach Akademie Charlotte festival, after attending four of the first five performances, I know what I like best about the event: Less J.S. Bach.

The towering composer of the Baroque Era has just one whole program to himself this year. Mostly, he shares the limelight, appears in a cameo role or doesn’t show up at all. The final music of the eight-day fest, Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers for the Blessed Virgin on Saturday, came out during the Renaissance, 75 years before Johann Sebastian popped into the world.

This would have been heresy during the first six years. Founding artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett venerated papa Bach and filled evenings with his work, never dedicating an entire festival program to anyone else. (He did conduct Monteverdi’s “Venetian Vespers” in March 2023.) Even the two virtual festivals during the pandemic years yielded endless JSB.

Jarrett’s tenure stops June 30 – officially, he’s on sabbatical now – and he’s been replaced by the trio of artistic leaders he appointed: violinist Aisslinn Nosky, cellist Guy Fishman, and keyboardist Nicolas Haigh, plus director of artistic planning Margaret Carpenter Haigh. They’ve broadened the festival’s scope to include the Renaissance and embrace Bach’s forerunners, contemporaries and followers, notably kick-over-the-traces son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

We’re on a wider voyage of discovery, down the byways not just of JSB’s career but of music itself. Even knowledgeable fans may have heard only the name of Barbara Strozzi; now they could hear “Lagrime Mie,” a piece about lost love as clever and illustrative as any by a composer of the mid-17th century.

Thus Charlotte-based oboist Kristin Olson explained the nature of her Baroque instrument, which has been made from boxwood, in between buoyant performances of sonatas by the unknown likes of Johann Janitsch and Princess Anna Amalia, sister to Frederick the Great of Prussia. Soprano Margaret Haigh gave an urgently dramatic recital titled “Songs of Lamentation, Disdain and Renewal” with nary a Bach family member in earshot.

Besides diversity, four things make this my favorite festival so far.

First, informality. Peter Blanchette, co-creator of the 11-string archguitar, kicked off the festival June 14 in an odd venue called The Pianodrome in the Historic Grace at the Brooklyn Collective-Charlotte. He played in the round, with gentle amplification, in an untucked flowered shirt, interweaving adaptations from J.S. Bach’s cello suites and violin partitas with traditional Irish music. He encouraged listeners to climb down from the hard wooden seats, sloped like miniature Alps, to grab drinks in the next room as needed – and did the same himself.

Second, intimacy. We could read Blanchette’s face and watch his fingers. We could see the tension in Haigh’s visage and upper body during the outcries of Zaida, a Turkish princess whose beloved has been abducted by Christian crusaders; the drama came from the clenching of a fist or the set of a jaw, and she filled a room at McColl Center without straining her attractive voice.

Third, brevity. Haigh and theorbo player William Simms, wielding an instrument with a neck as long as an elephant gun, gave us a full experience in 50 minutes. Organist Jonathan Moyer, playing J.S. Bach’s Dritter Theil der Clavierübung (literally, “third part of the piano exercise,” translated in the program as “German organ mass”) did the same thing in 60 minutes at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

Fourth, geography. This festival goes to nine venues, more than ever before and a few for the first time: The Bach Akademie Charlotte (BAC) debuted Tuesday at Queens University’s Kathryn Greenhoot Recital Hall, with the chamber concert where Olson played. (My derriere was grateful for a break from unyielding pews. Luckily, the finale will be upstairs in the same building, in the Sandra Levine Theatre.)

The back page of the program says the BAC will expand its boundaries much further between now and the sixth live festival next June. Fishman will play Bach’s cello suites in Charlotte in September; Nicolas Haigh will conduct the BAC choir in Asheville, Charlotte and Lancaster, S.C., in October; the BAC Ensemble will perform chamber music in Charlotte in January; and Nosky and Margaret Haigh will co-lead members of the BAC Choir and Orchestra in another mini-tour of Asheville, Charlotte and Lancaster in May.

The next festival will be anchored by J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor, the evening-long masterpiece that capped the first fest in 2018. Stone me for an unbeliever, but I’d rather have had a major work by Handel – “Israel in Egypt,” for choice – because the BAC has never done a big piece by the second-greatest Baroque composer. But whatever the new artistic leaders call forth, I expect to be challenged and awakened to new joys.

If You’re Going
Bach Akademie Charlotte’s 2024 festival runs through June 22. You’ll find a complete schedule of upcoming events here.