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Thomas Douglas and the Bach Choir

Sometimes, the only way to address the vast output of prolific composers is with a musical marathon. In 2000, Washington native Paul Jacobs played all of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music for solo organ in a single day.

Now, five Pittsburgh music organizations are banding together for a Bach marathon, which will include the German Baroque composer’s music for solo singers, choruses, keyboards and other instrumentalists.

Pittsburgh Music Alliance will present a Festival of Bach from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. May 10 at Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside. The members of the alliance are the Bach Choir, Chatham Baroque, Pittsburgh Camerata, Pittsburgh Chamber Music and the Renaissance and Baroque Society.

“The festival is really the culmination of three years of collaboration between the five organizations,” says Andrew Swensen, program manager of the alliance. “They came together to work on mutual support, particularly in the area of audience development. Each of them has a music-loving audience and each wanted to promote the musical offerings of all the others.”

The groups also work together on administrative matters and share a wireless hotspot.

“Everyone agreed Bach was the natural way to explore the collaboration. Bach is the place where all five meet,” Swensen says. “Over the course of these last 12 months, we brainstormed about how to represent the breadth of Bach’s genius.”

Each of the 12 hours is programmed to include a variety of music, instrumental and vocal. The culmination will be a collaborative performance of Bach’s “Magnificat.” The full details of the program, hour by hour, can be found at the alliance’s website.

Bach’s Concerto for Four Harpsichords and Orchestra, which will be played during the 10 a.m. hour, is a good metaphor for the festival itself, says Richard Stern, a member of the board of Renaissance and Baroque and lead harpsichordist. Other harpsichordists are Rebecca Rollett, artistic director of Pittsburgh Camerata; Marc Giosi, executive director of Chatham Baroque; and Gabriel D’Abruzzo, accompanist for the Bach Choir.

The music is Bach’s arrangement of a Concerto for Four Violins by Antonio Vivaldi, the 11th of his Opus 3 set of 12 concerti.

Stern’s day job is professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, and lecturer in the school of music at Carnegie Mellon University. He studied his instrument with Martin Pearlman in Boston while attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also studied with harpsichord legend Gustav Leonhardt in Amsterdam after finishing his degrees but before joining the faculty at Carnegie Mellon 37 years ago.

Stern also will be lead harpsichord of the performances of Bach’s two Concerti for Three Harpsichords later in the day.

The marathon will open with Bach’s most famous instrumental piece, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony performed earlier this year in Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement for full orchestra.

“The irony, of course, is the piece may not be by Bach and almost certainly wasn’t written for the organ, to begin with,” says Alan Lewis, director of music at Calvary Episcopal Church. “So, what we think of as the quintessential Bach organ piece may be neither.”

He says the famous piece’s “opening gesture, followed by a big silence and, then, a big descent gives it a sense of musical and also physical space that’s very satisfying, and the way the fugue builds and builds is very satisfying for the listener and the player.”

Lewis says there are many ways to play the Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

“Purists only do what Bach showed,” Lewis says. “Some don’t even change stops (the registration that provide organs with their immense range of colors). I think we might as well go for it. So, I’ll have lots of sounds going, because the piece is almost operatic in its sense of drama.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or [email protected].

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