He has been dead for 247 years.
Yet his music lives.
No, his music towers above almost all that came before and after.
This music resides high above the cacophony of rap, country and pop that fills the radio bandwidth and buzzes through our ears as background noise to what we call modern life.
This is music which commands you to listen. Music which commands you to feel. Music which speaks profoundly to the very soul.
To find a place to listen, to feel, to let the music reach your soul isn’t easy.
The weekly top 40 doesn’t offer much Johann Sebastian Bach.
Bands and orchestras go more for “Louie, Louie.”
Even the churches with the big pipe organs have searched for more contemporary tunes.
But there are places for Bach, and Spokane is fortunate to be one of them. The 19th annual Northwest Bach Festival concludes this afternoon with a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion at Spokane’s First Presbyterian Church.
By the end of this performance, about 3,000 people will have found a place to listen to Bach in Spokane.
For many patrons, the musical experiences will have been an extraordinary high point in an otherwise dreary winter.
Bach remains perhaps the greatest mind in musical history and the Northwest Bach Festival has come to attract some of the very best Bach musicians in the nation to Spokane.
“People in the East, even in Seattle, don’t know how good this festival is. This is as good as any Bach festival in the world,” said Gunther Schuller, artistic director of the festival and legendary composer, author and music educator whose reputation is the big reason the Spokane festival attracts world-class musicians.
Organist James David Christie, the first American ever to win the International Organ Competition in Belgium, all but tore the roof off Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral on the first day of the festival when he played Bach’s Toccata in D Minor, probably the best-known work by the great master.
“His improvisation of the Toccata moved me to tears,” said Sister Jeanne Keating, a nun from the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who sat near the front of the cathedral while Christie performed.
Thirty years ago Sister Jeanne worked with young student Jim Christie in LaCrosse, Wis., when he played organ with the high school orchestra. Christie’s concert in Spokane was dedicated, in part, to her.
An accomplished musician who has taught music in Catholic schools around the country, Sister Jeanne has seen the powerful role music can play in the lives of students and listeners of all ages.
“Music like that played at the Bach festival feeds our spirit,” she said a few days after hearing her former student perform. “Listening to that music expresses the best in us, the beauty in us.”
Will the Northwest Bach Festival, now attracting world-class musicians who play music that speaks to the best of our souls, become part of Spokane’s cultural foundation?
Unfortunately, this is not a certainty.
“On one hand everything is going great,” said Verne Windham, a board member of Connoisseur Concerts, which puts on the festival. “More and more people are finding out about the festival, the music is great, and word is getting around about the event. This year all the performances were sold out.”
But a troubling fatigue also nags the festival’s organizers.
“We sometimes think we are running on borrowed time,” Windham said. “Some of the board members say we can’t keep doing this. They are getting weary and wonder how long they can keep twisting the very last arm out of its socket to make the festival happen. It gets very frustrating.”
Though organist Christie came from Boston to perform in Spokane for his hero, Schuller, he was paid only a fraction of the professional rate he earns in, say, Philadelphia.
The same is true of the other artists, and for Schuller himself.
So, even as Spokane’s Northwest Bach Festival is poised to become the best event of its kind, an undercurrent of uncertain funding threatens to pull it down.
Spokane, which struggles often with its identity, has an opportunity to make a statement with the Bach festival.
In fact, Spokane can be known from Boston to Belgium as the place with the finest Bach festival on earth.
It will take about $100,000 a year in endowment to make it happen.
For organist Christie the investment seems small and the payoff big.
“You have something a lot of cities could learn from,” he said. “It is a wonderful event, with great music. The festival is a reason people would want to live in Spokane.”
This city needs positive, uplifting reasons for people to live here.
For the care of Spokane’s soul, the city must find patrons to keep the Northwest Bach Festival thriving and alive.
, DataTimes MEMO: Chris Peck is the editor of The Spokesman-Review.
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