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Collegium performs Bach as intended

Specialized musicians brought in to master Baroque era renditions

Bach Collegium opens its season Nov. 13.

Wheat Williams

Whatzup Features Writer

Published November 2, 2022

It’s a brand-new era for a local institution that plays music that’s 300 years old. 

Fort Wayne’s Bach Collegium begins their 21st season with a new director, Koji Otsuki, and a renewed historical focus.

Bach Collegium will perform three concerts this year, beginning Nov. 13 at Zion Lutheran Church. In addition to the three season shows, the much-beloved Handel’s Messiah Sing-Along on Dec. 4 at Queens of the Angels Catholic Church.

bach backstory

Bach Collegium was founded in 2001 by director Daniel Reuning of Concordia Seminary to perform the cantatas of the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Don’t call it classical music: that’s the term for the era after Bach’s lifetime. Bach belongs to the Baroque era.

A cantata is a piece of spiritual, sacred music, about 20 minutes long, for a small group of singers and orchestra, to be performed in church during worship. Bach, in the German-speaking Lutheran church, wrote as many as 300 cantatas, and about 200 survive today. Each cantata was based on a familiar church hymn. Bach would compose the rest to expand on the themes of the hymn, in poetry, Bible verses, and music. Solo singers and instrumentalists perform elaborate music between the chorales, which are simple in melody and rhythm, but rich in harmony. Each cantata was composed for a certain time in the church year.

Specialized performances

The Bach Collegium was created for “historically-informed performance,” a modern movement to perform the music as it was done in the Baroque era. It starts with the instruments: the harpsichord, the predecessor to the piano, and strings and woodwinds and brass built to Baroque specifications. The stringed instruments: violin, viola, cello, and bass, use strings of sheep gut. In contrast, modern instruments use steel strings, which only came into use about 1900. The sound is remarkably different.

The musicians study techniques musicians in Bach’s day used. Instrumentalists and singers don’t use vibrato, like that used in classical music and opera in the last 125 years, resulting in a sound that’s more cutting and direct. There is also room for soloists to improvise, something verboten in classical music.

The sound is more intimate, which is why it’s called “chamber music.” Audiences are sometimes surprised when they realize there is no amplification for singers or instrumentalists. If you see any microphones, those are only for recording.

The Bach Collegium’s president of the board of directors, Thomas Remenschneider, explained how all this comes together.

There aren’t many musicians who specialize in the Baroque style. The Bach Collegium has to hire specialists from across the country. Fortunately, Indiana University in Bloomington has a renowned Early Music program, as do Case Western Reserve University and Oberlin College in Ohio, among others. 

As Bach Collegium President Thomas Remenschneider points out, the group has to raise a lot of money to bring in the best Baroque performers, graduates of these programs. The solo singers, likewise, are specialists, some of whom perform internationally. The choir members are the only ones unpaid, and some travel from nearby cities. 

As Remenschneider points out, “They all have to perform an audition. There’s a pretty high standard for the choir.”

Meet the New Director

At the beginning of the pandemic, Reuning retired, so after a long search, the board of directors hired Otsuki as the new director. 

 Born in Michigan to parents who were research scientists, Otsuki was raised in Japan. Having mastered several Western instruments in his teens, he settled on the Japanese flute, the ryuteki, and found steady work playing traditional gagaku music for weddings and other events. 

He loved the interlocking melodies between the ryuteki and the hichiriki, the Japanese oboe.

“And then, of course, if you start pursuing counterpoint, who writes the best fugues?” Otsuki said. “That leads to Bach! I went back to Western music. The only solution was to study in the U.S. That led me to Temple University in Philadelphia.” 

After years of study as a choir director, he went back to Japan, having realized it’s a hotbed for Bach scholarship, too. But he made his home in Pennsylvania and commutes to Fort Wayne several times to rehearse the choir and orchestra for each Bach Collegium concert.

The big change Otsuki brings is something surprisingly new: singing in German. For the last 20 years, Reuning thought it best to perform Bach’s cantatas in English translation. Otsuki convinced the Bach Collegium to deepen the historical connection, and now he teaches German diction to the choir.

the 2022-23 Season

Remenschneider and Otsuki told us about the season opener, Nov. 13 at Zion Lutheran. 

“The first concert has an Advent flavor to it,” Remenschneider said.

It’s built around Bach’s cantata Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (“Now come, Savior of the Nations”), with two more cantatas. It also features several a cappella Advent songs by Max Reger, circa 1900, in the late Romantic style. 

“They’re getting really familiar with singing in German, but the Baroque works can be limited in terms of intimacy,” Otsuki said. “It is my sense of necessity to have something as intimate as the a cappella pieces to develop the relationship between myself and the choir.”

Following the Sing-Along, the second official concert of the season will be back at Zion Lutheran church.

“The second concert, Feb. 12, is more festive. It has Baroque trumpet, and it will have a larger instrumental ensemble,” Remenschneider said. It features the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (“Heart and mouth and deed and life”).

The final concert, April 23 at Oratory of St. Francis of Assisi at the University of Saint Francis, breaks the mold in that it has no Bach. Instead, it’s a piece by Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707), a half-century before Bach, featuring an ensemble of the predecessor to the cello, the viola da gamba, which is like a guitar played with a bow. Entitled Membra Jesu nostri, (“Limbs of our Jesus”), it’s a larger work, over an hour long, and in Latin. 

“We’re doing it in the University of Saint Francis chapel, which is a fabulous space,” Remenschneider said.

 If you have heard Baroque music performed on modern instruments, you owe it to yourself to hear it played by a historically-informed group. The Bach Collegium would like to show you how deeply spiritual Bach’s music can be.

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