11/11/2013 08:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Montréal Bach Festival Opens With First Canadian Performance by Boys Choir From Leipzig Church Where Bach Once Was Cantor


The Leipzig St. Thomas Boys Choir. Photograph by Gert Mothes

On Thursday night November 14 at the Notre Dame Basilica in historic Old Montréal, the Leipzig St. Thomas Boys Choir, 40 strong, will celebrate the Seventh Montreal Bach Festival by performing in Canada for the first time in its 800-year old history.

Accompanied by the 9-member original instrument Leipzig Baroque Orchestra, the Boys Choir, aged 10 to 18, will perform early cantatas by Bach and Vivaldi's Gloria and Magnificat. The connection with Bach, the Choir and the Festival makes perfect sense: Bach was cantor at St. Thomas Church from 1723 until his death in 1750.

Scheduled for a week before the Festival proper begins on November 23, presumably so that the town will have some quiet time in which to get into the proper Bachian mood, the Boys Choir concert will serve as a prelude to a panoply of events which reflects Montreal's unique ability to incorporate culture into the fabric of daily life - including classical music which the young consume both voraciously and casually, as if they were best friends.

On the road

Meanwhile, the Choir has been on the road for the last 16 days. When I talked to the Choir's Managing Director Stefan Altner a few days ago, they had already sung in Houston, New York City, Madison, Kansas City, and St. Louis. "Eleven concerts already," he said, "but after Montréal, we go home."

I asked Altner whether the Boys Choir could sing with the period instruments and in the authentic performance practice styles that are now so popular. "In Leipzig," he said, "the Choir sings often with the modern instrument Gewandhaus Orchestra, but they also have lots of opportunities to perform with period instruments at festivals and on tour."

Altner pointed out laughing that "Anyway, it's not so difficult for singers to sing at authentic pitch because it's usually a half tone lower. A half tone higher would be another story."

As for authentic style, he reminded me that on their tour and for their concert in Montréal the Choir will "sing like in Bach's time, with a very small group of singers accompanied by five period instrument string players, one bassoonist, two oboists and an organist."

When I told him that the Festival would be finishing with a Bach event at the other end of the interpretive spectrum, Bach's B Minor Mass played by the Montreal Symphony and Chamber Chorus conducted by Kent Nagano, Altner reassured me that the results will probably be surprisingly in tune with modern ways of Bach thinking.

"Musicians in orchestras like the Montréal Symphony are now increasingly well informed about how it sounds when period instruments play, and the importance of historical knowledge in adapting their modern way of playing on modern instruments," Altner said.

In other words, it could be a B Minor Mass created uniquely for 21st century Montréal.


The Bach Monument in Leipzig. Photograph by Gert Mothes

Previewing the Festival

The stylistic range and programing through the Festival is extraordinarily clever and unfairly enticing. After famed original-instrument band Concerto Köln sets the stage on opening night with a program of Baroque charmers, there will be no letup until December 7 and the second of the two performances of the B Minor Mass.

Whether it's organist Yulia Glazkova, the McGill Chamber Orchestra and pianist Ishay Shaer, Alexandre Tharaud (playing the Festival's annual Goldberg Variations), 11-string guitarist Göran Söllscher, the organists in their lofts, the St. Lawrence Choir and the original instrumental ensemble Caprice performing two thirds of the Christmas Oratorio, or any of the other artists from Montréal, Québec and abroad, the encounters promise to be good for the heart and the soul.

And the venues! Between the spiritual intimacy of the Boys Choir at Notre Dame and the radiant glory of the Symphony in their new Hall at the Place des Arts, the venues around the city that are presenting the Festival concerts will make their own indivisible contributions to making Bach come alive in Montréal.


At the 2012 Festival. Photograph permission of the Montréal Bach Festival