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CLASSICAL MUSIC At 45, Bach Week Festival pays homage to German maestro
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Catey Sullivan

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When Richard Webster launched the Bach Week Festival in 1974, he didn't expect that nearly half a century later it would still be going strong.

"We basically got a bunch of friends together and said, 'Hey, let's play some Bach,'" recalled Webster. So along with some friends from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Webster and Northwestern professor/organ maestro Karl Paukert began the annual celebration of the iconic German composer.

This year's Bach Fest runs April 27-May 4, at venues in Evanston and Chicago. It includes four full concerts featuring a variety of solo and ensemble pieces. For Webster, keeping the festival alive since the Nixon administration has not been without challenges.

When Paukert decamped in 1975 for a post as curator of music arts at the Cleveland Art Museum, Webster kept Bach Fest going. When Webster and his husband moved to Boston in the early 2000s, he kept Bach Fest going, orchestrating the logistics from Boston while "commuting" to Chicago several times a year.

Every year, Webster runs in the Chicago Marathon to raise funds for Bach Fest. And every year, hundreds turn out for the Fest, primed to celebrate the man Webster calls "the father of Western music."

Webster has yet to run out of pieces to showcase from Bach's astonishingly large body of work.

"There's so much we haven't even touched yet," said Webster from the Boston home he shares with husband of 11 years, Bart Dahlstrom. "Bach's compositions are in the thousands. He's been copied and transcribed countless times. He wrote for every conceivable medium in his day—solos, cello suites, chamber music [and] sacred music. I can't a think of another composer that has the inexhaustibility of repertoire that Bach has."

Bach demands impeccable technique; one cannot smooth mistakes over with the damper pedal or distract from them with hyper-dramatic shifts in dynamics; both are functions of a piano, and pianos didn't exist in Bach's time. The harpsichord was the favored instrument. Pedals to take the music from forte to pianissimo didn't exist.

Webster's primary instrument is the organ. He started taking lessons at 14, majored in organ at Northwestern University and is currently the music director for Boston's historic Trinity Church in Copley Square.

"Organists love Bach, " Webster said. "We all tend to start with him. There's something real, something so honest about his music. It's as demanding as it is beautiful," he said.

In his enthusiasm for Bach's mathematically precise harmonies and intricate interplay among musicians, Webster isn't above shading at Bach's contemporaries.

"I suppose maybe Vivaldi wrote as much as Bach. But Vivaldi sounds the same after a while," Webster said. "You look at the harmonic structure of Bach—it's so complex and sophisticated. He changed the course of Western music," Webster said.

Like many rock concerts, Bach Fest is a mix of superhits ( The Brandenburg Concerto ) and lesser known gems ( the "Singet dem Herren" motet for double choir, cello, bass violin and harpsichord ) and even the odd world premiere. ( This year, the Fest will feature a new work by Marcos Balter, inspired by Bach's cello suites. )

The music world has changed significantly since Webster started the Bach Fest, but the fest itself stays true to its baroque-era roots. But while Bach never composed ( or performed ) on a piano, Bach Fest is not a piano-free zone. Webster doesn't limit its performances to strictly period instruments such as the harpsichord.

''Purists would be out for blood," Webster said. Purists would also look askance at the world premiere holding down a centerpiece spot in this year's Bach Fest.

"I cannot wait to hear that new work," Webster said of Balter's premiere. The Fest is bookended by choral pieces—opening with a choral hymn, followed by Webster performing Bach's organ Fugue in E-flat Major. The finale concert features the "Singet dem Herren" chorale. In between, Bachophiles will find an eclectic wealth of music.

"Bach inspired so many musicians," Webster said. "I would tell people to come celebrate—and sit close. We've got some of the bestr musicians in the world and they're performing in intimate venues. This is a chance to really connect to the music. "

Bach Week Festival runs April 27-May 4. Tickets are $10-$30 per concert, or $80 for all four concerts. For more information, go to

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