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Bach Week: Keeping the German composer's "fantastic music" alive while diversifying the repertoire

arrivee bach
Melanie Senn
David Arrivee conducting the Quartet at the lecture/recital “The Art of the Fugue."

Bach Week is an annual event put on in San Luis Obispo every January. It's a series of lectures and performances meant to help people learn more about Bach himself, his influence, and his continued relevance in a diversifying world. 

Bach Week is led by Cal Poly’s symphony director and music professor David Arrivee and Associate Professor Scott Glysson, Cal Poly’s director of choral activities and vocal studies. The two are co-directors and have worked together many years bringing Bach Week to the community every January.

On the Wednesday of Bach Week, Arrivee said there's a few reasons why Bach continues to be the focus of this annual event.

“Yeah, why Bach? That’s kind of the question everyone should ask actually. I have two answers: I grew up playing Bach, like a lot of people do. With Bach, I just fell in love with the sound. And so for me, personally, that's a reason I like it. But also, a lot of people consider him to be the foundation of a lot of music that came afterwards. And so why not study the source of a lot of things that came afterwards?” Arrivee said.

Glysson agreed, adding that although they call it Bach Week, they don’t only do Bach.

“Actually, a more accurate title would be maybe Bach and contemporaries. We usually do represent Bach in some way just because he kind of does represent the height of Baroque-era style I guess you could say,” Glysson said.

Glysson and Arrivee are aware of and thoughtful about the ongoing debate about whether classical music by dead white men should still be celebrated and played — like in the Oscar-nominated movie Tar, where a student named Max tells fictional composer-conductor Lydia Tar that "Bach’s misogynistic life makes it kind of impossible for me to take his music seriously.”

David Arrivee at the podium lecturing on “The Art of the Fugue."
Melanie Senn
David Arrivee at the podium lecturing on “The Art of the Fugue."

When Blanchett tries to convince him of Bach’s value, he nervously yet resolutely tells her: “Nowadays, white, male, cis-composers–just not my thing.” For the rest of the scene, she is set on humiliating Max. The scene is tense, controversial, complex — and it tackles an ongoing debate about whiteness in art and cancel culture.

Neither Glysson nor Arrivee had seen the film, but they did have something to say about this debate, which is familiar to every professor, especially in the liberal arts. Glysson said that you shouldn’t have to agree with everything about the artist to look at the art.

“If you carry that train of thought to everything that you do, then you're probably going to find there's very little you probably are able to in good conscience perform or consume or things like that. So I think it's a decision that everybody has to make,” Glysson said.

It’s true that female composers, composers from indigenous communities, and composers of color have traditionally all been overlooked, Glysson said.

“They have been on the back burner to white European American males. I think it's good that we're examining those things. I think we should continue to examine them. But in my personal opinion, that doesn't include not exploring those works at the same time. I think you can do both. I think you can do both,” said Glysson.

Arrivee says Bach Week is a week, and that he and Glysson have the rest of the year to look at other cultures and traditions.

“I mean, wow, the symphonic tradition is about as white and Eurocentric as you can possibly be. Much more so I think, than the chorale tradition. So it's a question of ‘and.’ Because so much of the good music that we have–it’s just just fantastic music–is written by dead white people. And you have to program some of that, and then diversify the repertoire from there,” said Arrivee.

Glysson agreed, adding that their job as educators, especially at that college level, is not to force their views on students but to expose them to a variety of things.

“But my women's chorus is actually performing only music by female composers. So that's the other side of it. And really when we think about the curriculum, we need to be thinking about, like, what is the student in our class going to get over a period of time, and ideally, they should not only get dead white guys…but they should also never not get the historical repertoire.”

The ensemble showed off that historical repertoire at a lecture/recital on the Tuesday night of Bach week. Arrivee and his Cal Poly colleague and fellow music professor Meredith Brammeier discussed “The Art of Fugue” and then the quartet performed it.

Professors of Music and Bach Week co-directors David Arrivee (left) and Scott Glysson (right) after the final concert at First Presbyterian Church.
Melanie Senn
Professors of Music and Bach Week co-directors David Arrivee (left) and Scott Glysson (right) after the final concert at First Presbyterian Church.

The piece ended abruptly, leaving us with the echoes of Bach’s last composition before he died, a beautiful, yet incomplete work in progress.

“I'm a soprano, so I'm very excited to be singing those pieces," Brammeier said. "I love singing Bach–it’s one of my most favorite things to do in the entire world,” Brammeier said.

Brammeier is Lutheran, and Bach is part of her heritage. She said her mom sang Bach.

“After we went to bed, she would practice. And so I have memories of mom singing Bach, as we were going to sleep basically. And so it's really in my inner being. So, oh, I'm gonna get a little teary. And my mom loved Bach. And when she sang some of the pieces of Bach, she said, that's the closest she felt to being in heaven. And I feel the same way. And so I can not wait for this week every year,” she said.

Singing is certainly an integral part of Bach Week. During Thursday’s vocal master class, three students sang for the class, one of whom sang Handel’s “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted.

Mindy Chu, the guest artist teaching the class, was funny and effective, delivering praise and constructive criticism in a way that made everyone laugh as they learned.

After class, AJ Zoppi, a fourth year music major at Cal Poly and the one who sang Handel, said it’s always riveting to do a master class.

“It's always really helpful because you get a lot of perspective from different people, and especially during Bach, too, when you get all these cool guests, singers, and guest musicians that can show up and help any of the students that are in any master classes or doing things with their own solo repertoire with music. It's always very, very helpful to see what you can improve on,” Zoppi said.

Fourth year voice major Rue Heath agreed: “They were amazing. It's always, like, very exciting. I've never seen a master class like that, where she focuses purely or mostly on expression and getting out of your shell,” she said, adding that she, too, would be singing at Saturday’s concerts.

And then the grand finale arrived: the Saturday evening performance. Scott Glysson gave a pre-concert lecture on chorale music and explained the Bach motet we’d be hearing that evening: “Komm, Jesu, Komm." Basically, it translates to "Come on, Jesus, get here — my life is weary!"

Meredith Brammeier sang in the front row with Katelyn Caron, AJ Zoppi, and Rue Heath from the vocal master class, along with guest teacher Mindy Chu, singing this time with the students. Also present were members of the quartet from the Tuesday lecture and recital, as well as Paul Woodring playing beautiful harpsichord again as David Arrivee conducted.

The lectures and music from all the people sharing their knowledge and musical dedication make this a week worth attending. Bach Week is a way to understand the foundation for so much music that came afterward. It’s a fun week of events that might even make you feel, as Meredith Brammeier described, closer to heaven.

Bach Week happens every year in January, and you can read more about it here.

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County.

Melanie Senn was born in Camden, New Jersey (the resting place of Walt Whitman), but was raised in California. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Latin American Literature from UCSB, and after living a couple years in Mexico, Argentina, and Chile, got her master’s degree in English. She had a 25-year teaching career, including 17 years at Cal Poly where she taught essay writing and argument. Now she dedicates her time to writing and audio storytelling, and hanging out with her with her two teenage sons and their dad, musician Derek Senn.
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