It was purely by chance that I learned about Bach at One. In March 2011 I was having lunch with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in months. He sang in the Trinity Wall Street choir, and I asked him what was new.
“Oh, Julian’s doing the cantatas next week.”
“Julian Wachner. He’s the new music director.”
“Ah. Whose cantatas?”
“Really? Which ones?”
“ALL OF THEM.”
Well, that took me by surprise. I’ve been a huge fan of the cantatas for most of my life. My mother used to listen to them frequently, and from the 1950s onward they’ve been a source of solace and inspiration for me. It seemed a pity, I often thought, that I would only hear a handful of them performed live: Ein feste Burg, Christ lag in Todesbanden, Wachet auf—all great pieces, but there so many more. Suddenly, however, an opportunity to hear all of them presented itself.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t think this was going to happen. One obstacle or another would bring the series to a screeching halt, but I’d get in as many as possible.
So on March 21, 2011 (Bach’s birthday, old style), I went to the first of countless Bach at One concerts at St. Paul’s Chapel, a beautiful eighteenth-century church finished in 1766 and obviously designed and worked on by people who’d been alive in Bach’s lifetime. The piece that inaugurated the series was the large-scale cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21, one of the biggies. The period-instrument orchestra, led by Robert Mealy—even then something of a legend in early-music circles—consisted of many of New York’s ablest early-music performers, and the chorus and soloists were superb, led to heavenly heights by Wachner.
The performance was one of the best I’d heard, and I resolved to go to every Bach at One till (as I then expected) the series fizzled out. And there was a real threat that the series would end prematurely at one point, but somehow that catastrophe was averted. Miraculously, Wachner brought us all of the roughly 200 sacred cantatas in five years, as planned, along with—though not always as part of the Bach at One series—the Mass in B Minor, the two towering Passions, the Christmas Oratorio, the Brandenburgs, the Overtures, many of the major organ works (usually performed by the extraordinary Avi Stein, who is also a scintillating harpsichordist), and more.
Among the many pleasant byproducts of Bach at One has been steady work for period musicians, choristers, and vocal soloists in New York, as well as the growth of newer ensembles using many of players from the Bach at One pool (a number of whom are part of the relatively new early-music program at Juilliard), such as New York Baroque Incorporated, the Sebastians, the Diderot String Quartet, and House of Time. All this has greatly enriched the early-music scene in New York City.
Although harpsichords are often used for continuo in the cantatas, along with the obligatory chamber organ, the big news this season is the new pipe organ in St. Paul’s, which had its official inauguration on February 19, 2018, at the first Bach at One of the season, which overlapped with the American Guild of Organists Presidents’ Day Conference. Fitted into the original 1802 case, the instrument is a renovated Noack three-manual organ, and the cantatas chosen for the inauguration appropriately featured it prominently: BWV 29, which opens with the organ-concerto version of the famous Prelude in E Major for solo violin, and BWV 146, which features music best known, in a different guise, from the mighty Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor. Because the new organ is at modern pitch, however, the instruments had to adjust their tuning upward. Avi Stein was the solo organist, but Wachner himself has also played some of the solo selections.
The concerts are now streamed in excellent quality on Trinity Wall Street’s website and can be called up for a time after the performances as well: https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/videos/music. Three concerts remain this season:
April 16: BWV 106 and 152
April 23: BWV 104 and 6
April 30: BWV 8 and 113
So if you’re in the Wall Street neighborhood on a Monday at 1:00, you might want to stop by for some soul-lifting music. Oh, and the concerts are free.