Arts & Culture

Bach in the Mission, again

The Cal Poly Early Music Ensemble will perform its second Bach in the Mission concert Jan. 21.
The Cal Poly Early Music Ensemble will perform its second Bach in the Mission concert Jan. 21. COURTESY PHOTO

A year after its first successful Bach in the Mission concert, the Cal Poly Early Music Ensemble is back for more Bach.

The ensemble, which features Cal Poly students playing alongside professional musicians from San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties, will perform three pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach on Jan. 21 at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. (The performance coincides with a similar Bach showcase, Saturday’s Symphony of the Vines concert at Mission San Miguel.)

According to Cal Poly music professor Thomas Davies, the beloved Baroque composer has much to offer modern music lovers.

“When you listen to (his music), you think it’s very cerebral, but Bach wrote from the heart. The passion of his music is so great,” Davies said. “It makes for an exciting performance for the audience.”

His co-conductor, Cal Poly associate professor David Arrivée, agreed.

“Intellectually, there’s a lot to grab on to,” Arrivée said. “Viscerally, I love the sound — the way it feels to physically conduct it or play it or sing it.”

Davies, director of Cal Poly choral activities, and Arrivée, who directs the Cal Poly Symphony, had discussed bringing together students and professionals for a Bach-centered concert since the end of the 2009-2010 school year. Their idea came to fruition in January 2011 in the form of Bach in the Mission.

This year’s Bach in the Mission concert will feature a cantata, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimm,” and a motet, “Komm, Jesu, Komm.” Both pieces composed around 1731, when Bach was serving as cantor of the Thomasschule at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany.

The Jan. 21 performance also features Bach’s “Double Concerto for Oboe and Violin.” “That’s just a fantastic piece in terms of that purely musical, logical side of things,” Arrivée said.

As both conductors noted, Bach’s music can be intellectually taxing and technically demanding, especially for the 13 student members of the Early Music Ensemble.

“For students, to be asked to play in that style goes against a lot of their training,” Arrivée said.

For instance, he said, string instrumentalists usually learn to play using the fluid movements of the Romantic style. In order to play Baroque music, they must unlearn those behaviors, Arrivée said.

Plus, he added, “Playing something in a small group with a small choir is a completely different experience” than playing in an orchestra.

In addition to exposing students to new repertoire, Bach in the Mission gives them a chance to rub shoulders with experienced professionals.

This year’s choral performers include Cal Poly staffers Meredith Brammeier, Ken Habib and Susan Azaret Davies, Cuesta College faculty member Jill Anderson, and Paul Osborn, choral director at San Luis Obispo High School.

On the instrumental side, Los Angeles oboe player Paul Sherman will join San Luis Obispo Symphony co-concertmasters Paul Severtson and Pam Dassenko, university organist Paul Woodring, and several Cal Poly faculty members onstage.

Arrivée and Davies hope to make Bach in the Mission an annual concert, eventually adding chamber performances and lectures to create a weekend-long event.

“We feel it’s going to grow when it needs to and if it needs to,” Arrivée said.