Archive for the ‘Cantori Domino’ Tag

There you will find everything   1 comment

image009I’ve spent much of this week slowly coming down from our excellent rendition of J. S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor with the Cantori Domino Choir and the CalArts Orchestra Sunday at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Santa Monica (I had the privilege, honor and joy of playing harpsichord continuo). It’s a real trip to do such exalted music at such a high level with this great choir. Wasn’t perfect by any means, but Bach’s sublime music burst forth nevertheless. One feels one can see The Other (heaven? God? the next life? the entire universe? the purpose of life?) with such music.

Through history many others, including Bach’s musical descendents and those from other fields, have felt and seen Bach’s greatness and his preeminent place in music and art. Some of these quotes are, admittedly, a bit exaggerated and may not always transcend their own time. But the two most famous quotes about him are probably those by Mozart and Beethoven, and still ring true:

Mozart, on hearing or looking through Bach motets in Leipzig: Now here is music from which a man can learn something!

Beethoven, punning on the word ‘Bach’ meaning ‘stream’ or ‘brook’ in German: His name shouldn’t be ‘Stream’ –  it should be ‘Ocean!’

The Romantics and moderns also weighed in. Composer Robert Schumann, who wrote six fugues on Bach’s name for the now-obsolete pedal-piano, gave at least two opinions on the subject:

Religion owes as much to Bach as to its founder. And, Playing and studying Bach convinces us that we are all numbskulls.

One should not unduly extrapolate beliefs from what may well have been spontaneous, off-the-cuff, unguarded remarks. But I understand the sentiment behind both of those statements. In fact, some of the Cantori Domino choir did a tour of Germany years ago, which included singing a concert at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach, only third in line in the auditions for this position after Handel and Telemann, labored in relative obscurity in this cultural backwater for many years (but that’s a whole other story). In fact, he was buried in another churchyard and probably never had a headstone, so the exact site became lost for many years, and only rediscovered and authenticated in 1894. Now, of course, there is a large imposing statue of him in front of the church. But I digress.

Anyway, after the concert the choir was invited to take Communion – gathered around Bach’s grave, now in a prominent and appropriate place inside the Thomaskirche. How I envy them and that occasion. Talk about transcendental, renewing, and life-changing. Maybe someday…

Many musicians, especially creative ones (including this one) can relate to Schumann’s ‘numbskulls’ statement.  In grad school I heard on good authority that the contemporary Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki said that he can never listen to anything by Bach while composing – if he succumbed he would just throw up his hands in despair and give up for awhile!

So, Bach to a few more quotes (sorry, couldn’t resist any longer, and don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming!):

Karl Barth: Whether the angels play only Bach praising God, I am not quite sure. Could be – when Charles Marie Widor gave organ recitals, he played few other composers (besides his own organ symphonies, including the famous Toccata) – but always Bach!

Hector Berlioz: Bach is Bach, as God is God.

Claude Debussy: …if we look at the works of JS Bach – a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity – on each page we discover things which we thought were born only yesterday, from delightful arabesques to an overflowing of religious feeling greater than anything we have since discovered. And in his works we will search in vain for anything the least lacking in good taste.

Somerset Maugham (from ‘The Alien Corn’): She played Bach. I do not know the names of the pieces, but I recognized the stiff ceremonial of the frenchified little German courts and the sober, thrifty comfort of the burghers, and the dancing on the village green, the green trees that looked like Christmas trees, and the sunlight on the wide German country, and a tender cosiness; and in my nostrils there was a warm scent of the soil and I was conscious of a sturdy strength that seemed to have its roots deep in mother earth, and of an elemental power that was timeless and had no home in space.

Carl Friedrich Zelter (the teacher of Felix Mendelssohn), in a letter to Goethe: The poetry, the atmosphere, the intensity of expression, the beauty of the preludes and fugues grip, overwhelm, and stimulate us. Let us not be afraid of the supreme contrapuntal science of the fugues, nor be overawed by the stern appearance and heavy wig of Father Bach. Let us gather around him, feel the love, the noble goodness that flow from each one of his phrases and that invigorate and bind us by ties strong and warm. 

Felix Mendelssohn, who led a Bach revival beginning in 1839: …[Bach’s music is the greatest in the world – ] if life had taken hope and faith from me, this single chorus would restore all.

Pablo Casals: Bach is the supreme genius of music… This man, who knows everything and feels everything, cannot write one note, however unimportant it may appear, which is anything but transcendent. He has reached the heart of every noble thought, and has done it in the most perfect way.

Paul Hindemith: Any musician, even the most gifted, takes a place second to Bach’s at the very start.

Aaron Copland: If one were asked to name one musician who came closest to composing without human flaw, I suppose general consensus would choose Johann Sebastian Bach…

And finally, the sublime…

Helmut Walcha, renowned German organist: Bach opens a vista to the universe. After experiencing him, people feel there is meaning to life after all. 

Quote from a German opera house: Bach gave us God’s Word, Mozart gave us God’s Laughter, Beethoven gave us God’s Fire, God gave us Music, that we might pray without words. Somewhat ironic, since Bach never wrote an opera!

And the pointedly humorous:

William F. Buckley:  If Bach is not in Heaven…..I am not going!

Contemporary composer Michael Torke (b. 1961), whose style includes jazz and minimalism: Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the B Minor Mass? 

Lewis Thomas, eminent biologist and author, when asked what message he would choose to send from Earth into outer space in the Voyager spacecraft: I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach. After a pause, he added, But that would be boasting.

Finally, two by the late Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe and The Salmon of Doubt, among others:

The fact that I think Bach was mistaken [with regards to religion] doesn’t alter the fact that I think the B minor Mass is one of the great pinnacles of human achievement. It still absolutely moves me to tears to hear it.

Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven and Mozart tells you what it’s like to be human. Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe.

I could go on and on –  there are lots of great quotes on the Web about Bach’s importance, from Rimsky-Korsakoff, Reger, Gounod, Mahler, Albert Schweitzer and others.

The last word should go to a composer who is musically almost a direct descendent of JSB:

Johannes Brahms (possibly the best-educated composer of all time:) Study Bach. There you will find everything.

Posted March 26, 2014 by Ray Urwin in Uncategorized

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A New Role   6 comments

Many years ago, I took advantage of a singular opportunity to travel to Santa Barbara to reconnect with one of my heroes, Sir David Willcocks (I had accompanied for him for many years at Westminster Choir College, among other places, during the 80s, when I lived in the east), at a choral workshop put on by Cantori Domino. 

This led to a 15-year relationship where my dear wife and I both sang, and I occasionally played in their orchestra. Now, with the sad passing of Mary Gerlitz (see “A Fond Remembrance” below), Cantori Domino’s artistic director, Bunny Thornburgh, has asked me to be their new accompanist, and I have accepted.

With enthusiasm! Though I enjoy singing very much with this group – one of the finest choirs in LA – I am very much looking forward to playing for this outstanding group of singers as well! It will be great fun as well as a privilege to accompany for this choir!

A Fond Remembrance   3 comments

Organists, Sir David Willcocks workshop, Santa Barbara CA, 1990s. From left: Elizabeth Rembolt, Sir David Willcocks, Ray Urwin, and the late Mary Gerlitz.

Organists, Sir David Willcocks workshop, Santa Barbara CA, 1990s. From left: Elizabeth Rembolt, Sir David Willcocks, Ray Urwin, and the late Mary Gerlitz.

We’re back now. It was a glorious time in England, and I do have stories, as promised!  But York will be my next post (or two). For this one I want to bid a fond farewell to a beloved person, one of Cantori’s founders.

Recently it was my privilege and pleasure to serve as organist for the memorial service and celebration of the life of Mary Gerlitz, a longtime organist in the LA area, and accompanist, administrator, and General Goddess in Residence for the Cantori Domino choir.

We had returned from England only a few days before. Over the previous year Mary had made the basic arrangements for the tour, and she and I were to share the accompanying duties. But shortly before we left she suddenly became very ill, and it quickly became clear that she would not be going. She died on August 1. We all knew she was very seriously ill, but it was still a huge shock.

The service, held at St. Augustine by-the-Sea last Friday night (August 9th), was lovely – simple and direct, with a superb mix of music and words, and eulogies of fond and admiring content. Prelude music was Joseph Jongen’s impressionistic Petite Piece and a Bach instrumental aria. The organ loft was packed with former and current Cantori members, who sang Brahms’ Let nothing ever grieve thee so very beautifully – I could feel as well as hear the love and affection for Mary as they sang, both in the rehearsal and service. The service also included some of Bach’s best: Bist du bei mir sung by Bunny, and the Aria from the Goldberg Variations.

We also sang the great hymn O God, our help in ages past. The choir (which includes some of the finest vocal musicians in LA, including several members of the Roger Wagner Chorale) had gone down into the congregation by then, and one doesn’t often hear hymn-singing like THAT!:) Thanks so much for that, Cantori – that’s one of my very favorite hymns: a perfect match, I think, between text and music, the greatest funeral/memorial hymn ever written, perhaps the greatest hymn, period. I will never forget our moving rendition of it, and don’t expect to experience hymn music-making like that this side of Heaven! I will never forget it. And several singers noticed that I had composed the previous hymn in the book!

I knew Mary would also want a big piece for the closing organ voluntary, the last music of the service. Instead of selecting one of the usual suspects, I played Swiss organist Lionel Rogg’s magnificent toccata setting of the Advent chorale Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stille (I played this piece at OLA a while ago).

A lovely reception followed, thanks to Betsy Wheeler Kollgaard, Susan Kasenow, my dear spouse, and many others. Last but not least, my personal thanks to Cecilia for quickly finding some last-minute music I needed online, and to The Rev. Mark Goldfarb, the Rabbi at my wonderful Temple Beth Ohr, who graciously let me have the evening off for the service.

Bunny told the group several times, both in York and at the service, that I had been Mary’s choice as the sole accompanist, should she be unable to go. I felt honored and remembered this throughout the tour and the service. Mary certainly deserved no less than my best and the choir’s, and we all knew it. I still find it difficult to believe, and accept, that she has passed. But I think we gave her a good send-off, and she is pleased, wherever she now resides!

Mary was one of those people who had been around “forever;” after all, she and Bunny had co-founded Cantori Domino. All of us have very fond memories of her. My personal eulogy: in the many years I knew and worked with her I don’t remember ever having heard her utter a bad word or negative comment about anyone, even when such opportunities arose – and indeed sometimes even invited such comments! Quite the accomplishment! And a great example to us..

She will be long remembered and greatly missed. Rest in peace, my colleague and friend.

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