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The Bach Cantata Project

A new performance series in Bloomington epitomizes the idea of town and gown. The Bach Cantata Project features professors, students, and local Bloomington musicians all performing together in churches around Bloomington. The music is may not be so familiar, but introducing audiences to some lesser-known Bach works is just one of the goals of this project.

Bringing Back BLEMF

A couple years ago, due to financial difficulties and trouble with the board of directors, The Bloomington Early Music Festival fell on hard times. This fall, a new performance series is leading the charge to bring BLEMF back.

Professor Wendy Gillespie is the Director of the Bach Cantata Project. “This is part of our attempt to bring BLEMF back to life. We hope that there will be another BLEMF festival before long, but for the moment, this series of cantatas is BLEMF.”

Practicing For Performance

Gillespie in charge of the logistics of getting upwards of 20 musicians organized and scheduling performance dates with the venues. It’s a difficult job.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, she says, is moving the very heavy electronic organ that is on loan from the Early Music Institute. “Since we’re not playing at A440 and we’re not playing a equal temperament," she explains, "the church organs are not really at our service in this case.”

Another challenge of this series is for the performers: there are only 2 rehearsals before every performance. Gillespie explains that this is to give students a taste of what the real world of music performance is like.

“You don’t get six weeks of rehearsals for every little piece you’re going to play. You prepare ahead of time, you turn up able to play your part, you get in there, and you do it.”

This is similar to what musicians were expected to do in J.S. Bach’s day as well. Bach wrote his cantatas for the weekly Sunday worship service. So, in addition to various feasts and holidays, "it meant something like 60-70 full musical performances a year," says Daniel Melamed, Professor in the Musicology Department at the Jacobs School of Music.

“And the idea that music of this level was routine for the congregation of Bach’s time is awe-inspiring.”

Rehearsing To Perfection

Melamed explains that as much as we do know about the performance practice in Bach’s time, we just don’t know much about the rehearsal schedule. “The more you work with this music and the sources that transmit it, the more you wonder whether there really was much rehearsal time.”

Melamed goes on to say that these days we’ve come to expect musical perfection, particularly when listening to a cantata performance on a commercially released recording. “That kind of perfection probably wasn’t the standard of music-making back then any more than it is in everyday or every week religious music-making now,” he adds.

Unknown Bach

Even the most knowledgeable audience members might not recognize the cantatas performed on this series.

‘There’s a small repertory of Bach Cantatas that, for one reason or another, have become extremely famous," says Melamed. "One of the exciting things about this series is a chance to hear a piece fresh, hear a piece maybe you don’t know.”

Gillespie says she hopes to continue bringing these lesser-known works to the Bloomington community for the foreseeable future. “There are how many Bach Cantatas? We’re doing 6 a year. I think it’ll take a good 30 years to get through all of them!”

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