Juneau Bach Society isn't Bach exclusive

Handel will also be featured at winter concert

Posted: Thursday, December 04, 2008

If one were to Google "Bach society," they'd come up with thousands of sites about various musical organizations around the world. These groups vary in function, but each is centered around the celebration of music by this pretty cool dude who lived back during the Baroque era.

Photo Courtesy Of Libby Sterling
Photo Courtesy Of Libby Sterling

Johann Sebastian Bach left such a legacy that even Juneau has its own Bach Society. It doesn't come up in a Web search, since there is no Web site, but the society may be better off without one.

"I have more fun putting concerts together than doing Web sites," said Bruce Simonson, the Juneau Bach Society's founder and music director.

Active since 1988, the Juneau group is composed of volunteer singers and instrumentalists who share the vision to keep this cherished music alive and thriving. They will celebrate the continuing legacy of Johann with two performances this weekend at the Northern Light United Church. The program will consist of Bach's "Magnificat in D," George Frideric Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks," and Bach's "Cantata 192 (Nun danket alle Gott)."

The "Magnificat," based on a text in the Biblical Gospel of Luke, expresses the canticle of the Virgin Mary after she was informed that she would be giving birth to Jesus.

"It's a masterpiece in terms of how concise it is and how packed full of ideas it is," Simonson said. "It's one of those works you could study for a lifetime and keep finding new things."

The German words "Nun danket alle Gott" in Cantata 192's title translate to "Now thank we all our God."

"One of the things I love about Bach is that he has very complex ideas that don't sound overwrought when they're actually committed to paper and performed," Simonson said.

Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks" was originally composed in 1749 at the request of King George II of Great Britain. It was to be performed in a building in London constructed specifically for the piece and it was to be accompanied by live pyrotechnics. Unfortunately, a malfunction with the fireworks subsequently burned down the structure.

"We're not going to do that part of the performance," Simonson assured.

Prior to that flaming disaster, there also was mayhem at the first public rehearsal of the piece. Some 12,000 people all rushed to see the performance, and their eagerness caused massive carriage jams that lasted for hours.

So take heed, Juneau: If you must commute downtown for the show, don't come all at once.

Simonson said he is excited to present both Handel and Bach together in the same concert.

"The contrast between how Handel and Bach treat dance music is very wonderful," he said. "You can hear how the two composers approach that style differently - like night and day for me."

There will be quite a variety of performers represented as well, from young singers to seasoned professionals. The Bach Society often works with the Alaska Youth Choir and other student-aged vocalists. Several high-school students will be in the concert, including soloists who have previously performed with Opera To Go or in Juneau-Douglas High School musicals.

Soloists include Tiffany Hanson, Philippe Damerval, Kathleen Wayne, Wendy Byrnes, Monica Yost, Mark Bautista, Brett Crawford, Cheryl Crawford, Marie Petersen, Hannah Cordle and Sam Kurland. They will be accompanied by other chorus members and an orchestra.

Simonson gave praise to all of the young vocalists and said that he puts great importance on the inclusion of youth in the society's performances.

"I include youth choirs whenever possible to give kids a chance to be surrounded by all that sound," he said. "It's a chance for the music to spread across multiple generations."

Simonson said he also puts a high value on the student-teacher relationship. He invites local music teachers to come to the Saturday night performance for a group photograph and recognition for what they have done for the community.

"It's a way of honoring all those folks who keep music alive," he said.

Many of those people have been teaching in Juneau for up to three generations and are still going strong, and help keep volunteer groups like the Bach Society thriving.

"Juneau is a fabulous town for music. It's amazing to me that we can do these works that are really technical and difficult, and astonishingly beautiful," Simonson said.

• Libby Sterling can be reached at fresh@libbyis.com.

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