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Breaking Down Barriers to Bach

A recent poll of 174 living composers called J.S. Bach the “greatest composer of all time.” That would make Bach the Shakespeare of music. But just as the brilliant stage performances of Shakespeare can seem inaccessible to the average person, so too can the tremendous choral performances of Bach seem out of reach to many people.

One choral group in Toronto works to remove those barriers and, at the same time, share Bach’s faith-infused choral legacy with a harried world. The Trinity Bach Project (TBP) is a baroque vocal and instrumental ensemble dedicated to offering “ordinary audiences the extraordinary musical and spiritual riches of Bach’s choral repertoire.” It describes a vision to “remove barriers of exclusivity around classical choral music and open the doors of sacred places — both historic architecture and human hearts — with Bach’s abiding light.”

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a devout Christian who composed more than 200 sacred cantatas for the Lutheran church in Germany, often at the rate of one a week. These are considered among the treasures of the Western music tradition, yet they are rarely heard. The cost of presenting these profound sacred works, which require period instruments and highly trained vocalists and musicians, limits their availability to contemporary audiences.

While a handful of Bach’s longer works, such as the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion, and the Mass in B Minor, are performed live fairly regularly, “the rest of his choral wealth lies dormant, not doing the spiritual work it was intended to do.”

The Trinity Bach Project intends to change that. This is how its members are bringing down the barriers of expense, obscurity, and elitism:

  • Concerts are free. The performers are members of Toronto’s professional music scene and all are paid, but through donations and patron support, not ticket sales.
  • Concerts are short — one hour without an intermission. Some are held during the lunch hour or mid-afternoon.
  • A line-by-line English translation of the German or Latin text is projected as surtitles during performances.
  • Venues are historic churches, not huge concert halls or auditoriums, making for a more intimate experience. Last year, a simple sandwich board outside St. Matthew’s, First Avenue, advertising the free concert was enough to entice one couple who had lived in the neighborhood for 30 years but had never stepped inside the church.
  • Concerts end with the audience joining the professional ensemble in singing a familiar hymn in English. “We want to invite the audience into the experience,” said Louise Zacharias Friesen, one of the visionaries behind TBP. “Some have said to us, ‘I haven’t sung in years,’ but they were glad they did.”

Under the umbrella organization Imago Arts, Trinity Bach Project is a joint venture of Louise Zacharias Friesen (artistic director), Nicholas Nicolaidis (music director), Chris Friesen (executive director), and Michelle Odorico (orchestral director). They are bound together by their Christian faith — they all attend Anglican churches — and by a shared passion for the music of Bach.

Ms. Zacharias Friesen says she wants to invite people to “taste and see that high-caliber classical music can communicate to anybody.”

For Mr. Friesen, listening to Bach is like “drinking a cup of spiritual coffee. And you’re longing for your audience to have the same experience.” He finds that music can be a “supra-rational expression of faith,” and can express more than reason alone.

The project is in its second season, and Mr. Friesen, who is pursuing graduate studies at Wycliffe College, handles all the administration. “The other important way TBP connects to our faith is in terms of the tremendous adventure of trust it has been to move forward with the project without knowing how we would pay for it,” he says.

Odorico, who leads the instrumental ensemble, says she’s thrilled to share Bach’s music with audiences “in the spiritual intention with which it was written.” A baroque violinist who has played with Tafelmusik and many other ensembles, she had no trouble finding qualified musicians for this project.

The orchestra, which varies in size from five to 15 members depending on the work being performed, plays on period instruments, including organ, cello, oboe, viola, traverso flute, trumpet, and bassoon.

TBP’s home base is Trinity College Chapel at the University of Toronto. Thomas Bell, director of music and organist at Trinity College, says it has been a delight to host the ensemble. “Their music-making is of the highest quality, a gift to the faculty, staff, students, and many visitors to the college. But it is what lies behind their performances that sets the TBP apart as they seek to uncover the faith and spiritual life of J.S. Bach,” he says. “The texts of Bach’s cantatas come alive in their singing — and as a bonus, are projected onto the wall of the chapel — to create a musical experience full of depth and loveliness. As Bach would have said, Soli Deo Gloria!

TBP’s 2023-24 season will present six different programs in 10 different venues. It has established relationships with several Anglican churches in Toronto (St. Augustine of Canterbury, Grace Church on-the-Hill, St. Matthew, First Avenue, and Little Trinity) and one in Hamilton (St. John the Evangelist). It will also perform at Metropolitan United, Timothy Eaton Memorial, Trinity-St. Paul, and Holy Family Parish, all in Toronto.

Still under development is a school series to introduce children and youth to the power of Baroque music, a New Sacred Music concert featuring the work of young and local composers who create music in the spirit of Bach, and the concept of a summer Bach festival in Gananoque, midway between Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Syracuse, New York.

“I think Bach wrote this for us,” one audience member said last season. “I found hope here,” another said. And the ensemble has been told, “You are changing the musical landscape in Toronto.”

Mr. Friesen says the Trinity Bach Project is “on a mission to help re-teach the world — or at least Toronto — Bach’s musical and spiritual language.”

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