Festival Mozaic may have started out as the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival, but this summer, it’s all about Bach.
In Johann Sebastian Bach, Festival Mozaic Music Director Scott Yoo said, “You have one composer whose footprint is so large that he influences all these other composers who have nothing to do with him.”
The festival, which kicks off Thursday, celebrates its 45th anniversary with 10 days of concerts inspired by the beloved German baroque composer. Featured are works by familiar favorites such as Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann and Dmitri Shostakovich, as well as lesser-known luminaries such as Sofia Gubaidulina and Jacques Ibert.
The festival culminates in two 8 p.m. performances of Bach’s Mass in B minor — July 24 at Mission San Miguel Arcangel and July 25 at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa — featuring two soloists, baritone Christòpheren Nomura and soprano Jennifer Paulino, and the Bach Collegium San Diego.
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“By many measures, it’s the greatest piece of music ever,” Yoo said. “It really leaves you speechless.”
The music director described the 27-movement mass — which Bach completed in 1749, a year before he died — as an anthology of his greatest hits. Forensic evidence shows the composer combined new material with reworked snippets from many of his earlier works.
“It encapsulates and sums up Bach’s music in one piece,” explained Ruben Valenzuela, founder and music director of Bach Collegium San Diego.
Bach never heard the mass performed in its entirety in his lifetime, but it gained a sterling reputation in the decades following his death thanks to high-profile fans such as Schumann, who proclaimed, “Before it all masters of other ages must bow in reverence.”
Swiss composer and publisher Hans Georg Nägeli went one further, advertising the mass under the mildly hyperbolic title “the Greatest Musical Artwork of All Times and All People.”
Yoo first encountered Bach’s mass in B minor as a 16-year-old student listening to classical music cassette tapes on his morning drive to high school.
As the first “Kyrie eleison” seeped from his car speakers, “I realized, ‘My God, this is the greatest music I’ve ever studied in my life, ever,’” he recalled.
Valenzuela had a similar experience when his college roommate introduced him to the mass. “I got hooked,” he said.
“For me, the piece is one of the pillars of not just (Bach’s music), but music in general,” he said.
Valenzuela started Bach Collegium San Diego, which performs repertoire from the Renaissance, Baroque and early classical eras, in 2003 to combat what he saw as a “lack of (local) groups performing early music in a formal way.” (Its name was inspired by an unrelated group, Bach Collegium Japan.)
Although the music ensemble performs more than just Bach — the works of George Frideric Handel are popular selections — there’s no question that the composer is a favorite.
“What draws me to (Bach’s music) is the fact that it’s incredibly challenging in an interesting sort of way,” said Valenzuela, organist and music director at All Souls’ Episcopal Church in San Diego. “You feel that the time you invest in it really pays off, and then some.”
Bach Collegium San Diego first performed Bach’s Mass in B minor in 2008, then reprised the piece last year for a live recording that was released this January. The group is bringing 24 singers to Festival Mozaic to perform with the Festival Orchestra.
“You say ‘We’re going to sing the B minor mass,’ (and) it’s like being in a room of middle-schoolers and saying, ‘Hey, we have pizza here,’” Valenzuela said with a chuckle. “It’s one of those pieces that everybody loves to perform.”
Various times, Thursday through July 26
Various locations throughout San Luis Obispo County
$35 to $175
781-3009 or www.festivalmozaic.com