Last year’s first-ever Bach Festival, courtesy of First Scots Presbyterian Church, didn’t get the attention it deserved. But it’s back this year with a generous and promising array of musical offerings. The festival is the brainchild of the church’s distinguished resident musicians, choral director Ricard Bordas and organist/music director Dr. JeeYoon Choi, who is also the festival’s artistic director. Adding luster and appeal to the three-day event will be the festival’s distinguished guest artist, internationally acclaimed organist and teacher Stefan Engels. There will also be a select array of local instrumental and vocal soloists, plus a bevy of skilled orchestral players for the final program.
The festival kicks off at on Friday with a choice program of Baroque-era instrumental sonatas by J.S. Bach, his son C.P.E. Bach, G.P. Telemann, F.M. Veracini, and Antonio Vivaldi. Doing solo instrumental honors will be several of the Charleston Symphony’s finest, including violinist Yuriy Bekker, flutist Jessica Hull-Dambaugh, oboist Mark Gainer, and cellist Damian Kremer. Choi will join them at the harpsichord — First Scots’ marvelous instrument is perhaps the best in town.
The church’s organ is also one of Charleston’s very finest, and Engels will be there on Saturday to show it off. Originally from Germany, Engels has spent much of his professional life in America. He has family ties, by marriage, to Charleston, and calls Mt. Pleasant home. But since 2005, he has been regularly commuting to teach at the Leipzig Conservatory, one of Europe’s oldest and most respected music schools. The city of Leipzig was home to J.S. Bach, as well as the early twentieth-century composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert. Engels is a leading Karg-Elert authority, and is currently engaged in a project to record his complete organ works for the Priory label.
Engels’ two-part Saturday program will encompass both masters. The first part, beginning at 3:30 p.m., will be a lecture entitled “The Leipzig Organ Tradition.” He’ll return at 7:30 p.m. for a recital featuring both composers. “Karg-Elert used many of the same Baroque-era compositional forms that Bach employed, and works by both composers show similar sorts of instrumental color and effect,” Engels says. “I hope my presentations will help listeners understand and appreciate these connections.”
The final event will be at 4:00 p.m. Sunday, featuring an attractive selection of J.S. Bach’s cantatas and orchestral works. The instrumental offerings, performed by a crack ensemble of local musicians led by Dr. Choi, will be the Orchestral Suite No. 3 and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, plus a movement from his famous D minor double violin concerto. The pair of Cantatas, with the First Scots Kirk Choir plus orchestra, will be conducted by Ricard Bordas; his first-rate soloists will include soprano Margaret Kelly Cook and alto Jennifer Luiken. The first of the Cantatas is Thou True God and David’s Son, BWV 23. The second, Bach’s only Latin cantata, is Gloria in Excelsis Deo, BWV 191, based on parts of Bach’s great Mass in B Minor. “Bach wrote so many different kinds of music, and you aren’t likely to find many chances like this to hear such a broad range of it,” Bordas says.
Choi summed things up, saying “We have a beautiful and acoustically superior performance space at First Scots, plus some of the finest instruments and musicians in Charleston, and we want to share these assets with our community while demonstrating what kinds of music are possible in a church setting. Besides, Charleston’s music lovers don’t often get to hear a festival devoted entirely to Baroque music.”