For baroque music buffs, the mere mention of “Johann Sebastian Bach” evokes a rapturous response.
“He’s my desert island composer. If I could only take one, it would be him,” said Thomas Davies, Cal Poly’s director of choral activities and vocal studies. “He’s one of the few composers who could sum up everyone (who came) before his time, and influenced everyone who came after him.”
“The more you delve into his music, the more you love it,” Davies added.
Music lovers have plenty of chances to explore the German composer’s work and celebrate his legacy during the first-ever Bach Week, presented by the Cal Poly Music Department. Bach Week, which kicked off Tuesday, continues Thursday through Saturday with a string of chamber music concerts and presentations.
Bach Week has its beginnings in the annual “Bach in the Mission” concert created by Davies and David Arrivée, conductor of the Cal Poly Symphony and string ensembles, to give students the opportunity to rehearse and perform alongside faculty members and local professionals.
“To me, the real exciting aspect of this is the educational component, that my students are sitting next to and performing next to some of our best professional people in the area,” Davies said, as well as their teachers. “This just lifts their level of performance.”
Added Arrivée, “It’s a direct mentoring relationship as much as we can make it.”
Asked why they chose Bach as the focus of the annual event, Arrivée and Davies said his rich, challenging repertoire is particularly suited to such treatment.
“There’s so much music to pick from and you can attack it from so many different angles,” Arrivée said, ranging from Bach’s Lutheran faith to his French and Italian influences. “Bach lends himself to this kind of intense focus rather easily.”
This year, the co-directors decided to expand their Bach-based program by bringing in a professional group from the Bay Area, Mensa Sonora California. (The group’s name, which means “Table Music” in Latin, refers to the once-common practice of playing chamber music at aristocratic banquets.) The quartet —which consists of violinists Anthony Martin and David Wilson, harpsichordist Charles Sherman and John Dornenburg, who plays the cello-like viola de gamba — specializes in performing the music of the 17th and early 18th centuries on period instruments.
In the case of string music, that typically means instruments with gut strings played with shorter, lighter bows, explained Martin, who teaches baroque violin at Stanford University.
“The instruments and the music fit each other well,” the violinist said, comparing music of that earlier era to a rough country road. “It would be even better to go over an old road with ruts and lots of weeds in a (Ford) Model T, as opposed to a low-slung Honda.”
The group’s period-appropriate performance style is noticeably different from the way modern musicians play, Arrivée said.
In those days, composers “created much shorter musical thoughts instead of long soaring lines,” he explained, resulting in a sound that’s “lighter, quicker, less sustained and (more) dance-like.”
Two members of Mensa Sonora California, Martin and Wilson, will demonstrate baroque performance practices Thursday during their presentation “The Baroque Violin” at Cal Poly’s Davidson Music Center. (Both violinists previously performed at Festival Mozaic.)
On Friday, Mensa Sonora California will present the chamber concert “Before Bach” at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, featuring selections by early baroque composers including Dieterich Buxtehude, Francois Couperin, Johann Pachelbel and Antonio Vivaldi.
“We’re looking at the music and the composers that Bach knew, that he studied,” Martin explained, reminding listeners that “Bach did not spring full-grown out of the German soil.”
As proof of that musical heritage, each piece is paired with a passage from Johann Nicholas Forkel’s 1802 biography of Bach mentioning those earlier composers.
Saturday’s “Bach in the Mission V” concert at Mission San Luis Obispo will find Mensa Sonora California performing alongside Cal Poly’s Early Music Ensemble and university students and faculty members.
Visiting professionals include faculty members at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, and members of Canzona Women’s Ensemble, Cuesta Master Chorale, San Luis Obispo Symphony and Symphony of the Vines.
A total of 29 singers will be backed by a 25-member orchestra.
According to Arrivée and Davies, this year’s “Bach in the Mission” program reflects a desire to highlight particular musicians while continuing to explore Bach’s massive body of work — such as the motet “Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf” and the cantata “Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild.”
Sherman will play harpsichord on “Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings in D minor,” while flutist Suzanne Duffy will solo on "Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor."
Martin said he’s looking forward to helping bring these pieces to life.
“(Bach is) so good at what he does and so complicated,” Martin said, that he welcomes each encounter with the composer. “You never think ‘Okay, I’ve heard that. I never need to hear that again.’ Because of his intricacy and genius, I never get tired of him.”
‘The Baroque Violin’
11:10 a.m. Thursday
Davidson Music Center, Room 218, Cal Poly
8 p.m. Friday
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa,751 Palm St., San Luis Obispo
$18, $16 seniors and $9 students
‘Bach in the Mission V’
8 p.m. Saturday
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, 751 Palm St., San Luis Obispo
$18, $16 seniors and $9 students
$32, $28 seniors and $15 students for both concerts
756-2406 or http://bachweek.calpoly.edu