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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 20, No. 1

The Bach Cantata Cycle at Bourgie Hall

by Caroline Rodgers / September 5, 2014

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Isolde Lagacé

The 2014-2015 season marks the beginning of a great musical adventure for the Fondation Arte Musica and Bourgie Hall. It will be year one of the presentation of a complete cycle of Bach’s cantatas by various ensembles. The project will be spread over eight years at a rate of eight concerts per season.

Isolde Lagacé, the director of Arte Musica, grew up with Bach’s cantatas and has long dreamed of the idea.

“At home, my musician parents [organists Bernard and Mireille Lagacé] listened to them a lot and also played them. When I was small, my mother was an organist at Erskine and American United Church, which became Bourgie Hall. At the time, George Little, who was the organist and choir director, did one cantata each week. Even then, the beauty of the music was striking to me.”

Later, when Gustav Leonhart and Nicolas Harnocourt undertook their own cantata cycle under the Telefunken label, Isolde Lagacé and her sister, harpsichordist Geneviève Soly, couldn’t wait for each new set.

“We learned the text and the melodies, and we had contests to guess the number of each cantata by listening to the first notes,” Lagacé remembers. “It was really quite exceptional material in the history of music. Musicologist Gilles Cantagrel once said that it was a gem of human heritage, and I agree completely. Its universality is always relevant.”

News of the cantata cycle has already raised interest in the musical community.

“When I announced that we were embarking on this adventure, I thought that it would resonate with certain music lovers, mostly fans of early music. But I’ve heard from people in contemporary music and even jazz who want to come tell me that they think that it’s a fantastic project.

The First Year

“With a project of this scale, we can’t rely on one ensemble. As soon as the hall was open, I established partnerships with several ensembles. We also wanted there to be diverse approaches, because the cantatas themselves are quite diverse and demand different strengths.”

Certain concerts will be limited to a dozen musicians while others will require greater numbers. The order of the presentation will largely follow the liturgical calendar.

“The BWV catalogue numbers are completely random. There’s no chronological or musicological order. It wouldn’t have made any sense to do them using the BWV order. But most of the cantatas are an integral part of the Lutheran religion. Bach wrote these cantatas following the religious year. Even if most people today aren’t practicants, we can’t shrug off this aspect. The music itself is linked to its significance.”

All of the concerts, with a few exceptions, will take place on a Sunday. The series’ inaugural concert takes place on September 13, with the OSM under the baton of Kent Nagano and the OSM Chorus directed by Andrew Megill. On the program are the cantatas BWV 164, BWV 75, and BWV 147.

For the first season, participating ensembles include the choir and instrumental ensemble of the Canadian International Organ Competition (Nov 26), Clavecin en Concert (Nov 30), the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal (Dec 13 and 14), the Violons du Roy (Jan 25), Ensemble Caprice (Feb 22), Idées Heureuses (March 29), and Cappella Antica McGill with the Fondation Arte Musica Ensemble (April 26).

“It’s the biggest project we’ve done at Bourgie Hall thus far, in terms of budget, duration, and scope. We decided to do it over eight years so that there would be one concert per month during the regular season. To fit in all the sacred cantatas, we need 64 concerts. That demands an enormous amount of planning. For the moment, it’s just local ensembles, but in the years to come, I hope that we will be able to invite ensembles from further afield.”

Another aspect close to Lagacé’s heart is that of audience participation.

“A cantata generally concludes with a Lutheran choral. In Bach’s era, the congregation would sing the choral. Everyone would stand up and sing. I want to recreate this experience. All interested audience members can come to a rehearsal just before the concert to learn the choral with a choir director. The ensemble performing the concert will play the choral once, and the audience can then sing it in reply.”

First concert of the cycle: Sep 13 at 3 pm and Sep 14 at 2 pm, with the OSM at Bourgie Hall. www.fondationartemusica.com

Translation: Rebecca Anne Clark

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