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Classical Music

Inside the Bachfest Leipzig

From June 7 to 17, the Leipzig Bachfest hosts 125 events in 35 locations in and around Leipzig. Tradition may be the watch word for the programming, but the festival is anything but local and provincial.

The city of Bach is full of the festival spirit: Everywhere you look, there are pictures of the former cantor of the city's St. Thomas Boys Choir. Johann Sebastian Bach is considered the quintessential figure in the choir's history, although the 27 years he spent at the head of the boys choir represents just three percent of the institution's history.

When Bach took the position in 1723, he entered a group with traditions and musical infrastructure dating back to the year 1212. Around a century after the city of Leipzig was founded, its oldest cultural body came into being. This year, the St. Thomas Boys Choir celebrates 800 years of unbroken tradition in Leipzig, and the Bachfest celebrates along with them under the motto: "A New Song" - 800 Years of Music at St. Thomas.

More than 25 years ago, German music lovers celebrated composer Johann Sebastian Bach with a festival that changed cities each year. For the last two decades, the Bachfest Leipzig carried on in that tradition in a new form. Home to the Bach Archive, the St. Thomas Church - where Bach both worked and was buried - and a continuous tradition of performing his music, Leipzig is a natural location to house the world's most important festival dedicated to Bach.

An outside view of the St. Thomas Church

The St. Thomas Church has long been a center of Leipzig's musical life

A solid foundation

There's another reason that the festival has flourished in Leipzig: Funding from the state and city is readily available. Festival head Dettloff Schwerdtfeger believes that financial support is unlikely to grow in the future, though.

"It's a bit more than 50 percent public support. The rest comes from sponsors and ticket sales. I don't make it a secret that we have the constant goal of increasing our funding in order to let the festival develop. And there are good signs. Our sales grew in the last few years, and the number of visitors did, too," Schwerdfeger said.

Finding new financial streams allows for extra programs like the Bachmosphere, which includes live broadcasts of four concerts in the St. Thomas Church at Leipzig's market square. Those concerts included the opener on May 7 featuring the St. Thomas Choir and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Further, there are programs each evening: poetry slams, heavy metal, breakdancing and even a performance by former members of the boys choir in a pop formation called Die Prinzen.

American conductor David Stern

American conductor David Stern

The market square is hosting a second free series - concerts by the orchestra academy b@ch für uns! (b@ch for us!). The youth orchestra including young people between the ages of nine and 26 perform in concerts conceived with an eye to developing their musicianship. They are led by American conductor David Stern.

The 11-day festival is part of a year-long celebration of 800 years since the Thomas Choir's inception. New cantatas by Christoph Biller, Hans Werner Henze, Heinz Holliger, Brett Dean and Krysztof Penderecki will be premiered on special days in the St. Thomas Church.

Global in scope

The Bachfest Leipzig 2011 drew more than 75,000 visitors. And it's an international crowd, Creative Director Christoph Wolff was careful to point out: "Our figures show that around 80 percent of the guests are not from Leipzig, and about half of them are from abroad."

Musicians rehearsing inside the St. Thomas Church

The St. Thomas Choir rehearses inside the church

Along with musicians and ensembles based in Leipzig and its surroundings, some of the best known formations internationally also appear at the Bachfest, including the Bach Collegium Japan under Masaaki Suzuki, the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra with Ton Koopman, England's Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment, and the English Concert or the St. Thomas Choir of New York.

Well-known German formations are, in fact, in the minority, said Christoph Wolff.

"We don't make German groups our focal point. Instead, we bring in really the best of what's being done in the world in order to also give German ensembles new perspectives because it's often the case that German groups have little experience with what is happening internationally in terms of Bach," Wolff explained.

Author: Rick Fulker / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen

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