The more than 200 solo organ works that bracket the prodigious composing career of Johann Sebastian Bach have long been every organist's Bible. Rare is the organ recital that doesn't include such favorites as the mighty "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" or the "Little" Fugue.
The question then arises: When was the last time you heard all of these pieces as a concert cycle?
Bach organ enthusiasts will be able to do just that in the fall, when some of the area's, and the nation's, leading organists will take turns exploring this vast body of works – more than 16 hours of music, in all – performed by 30 organists on nine magnificent organs across the city and suburbs.
The WFMT Bach Organ Project is the fulfillment of a nearly decade-long dream of the fine arts radio station's general manager, Steve Robinson, to present the complete Bach organ works as a community-wide effort.
His search for a partner to organize and coordinate the ambitious project led him to conductor, keyboard player and Northwestern University Bienen School of Music professor Stephen Alltop, a fellow Bach organ music enthusiast who had been dreaming along similar lines.
Now, with the participation of such major organists as Nathan Laube, David Schrader, Bruce Barber and Alltop himself, their "pipe dream" is soon to become reality, as a series of 10 performances -- plus pre-concert mini-recitals of Bach's Chorale-Preludes – presented as a series from Sept. 21 to Oct. 26.
Although WFMT 98.7 FM is fronting the project, audience members are asked to bear the bulk of the costs. If enough of them sign up for the cycle, WFMT plans to record all the concerts for later broadcast.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear what I would describe as the greatest canon of music for solo instrument by any composer," Alltop declares.
That's a pretty sweeping statement. Many people in classical music, for example, would place the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas on that particular pedestal. But Alltop stands by his assertion, which he offers as personal opinion rather than immutable fact.
"Both oeuvres are musical Valhallas, no doubt," he says. Still, given the demanding pedal lines in the Baroque master's organ works, "Bach made a great deal more music with his feet than Beethoven did," he adds, with a grin.
The most challenging part of putting together the organ project, Alltop explains, was not just poring through stacks of music but also deciding which works to eliminate for musical and practical reasons. Thus, the cycle will not include works Bach scholars now consider doubtful or spurious, along with pieces the composer left incomplete or in fragments.
Once Alltop had winnowed the repertory to 256 works – including the Bach Chorale-Preludes that will be presented in mini-recitals preceding the main performances – he set about lining up venues.
The Chicago, North Shore and Fox Valley chapters of the American Guild of Organists have thrown their support behind the project, spreading the word among their members and helping Alltop choose the professional and student organists who are scheduled to participate in the cycle.
"I'm thrilled to have the very wide involvement of organists from around the city that will represent the various AGO chapters," he says. "Their level of understanding the challenge of organizing this event has been heroic."
Another of his objectives was to distribute the concerts as widely as possible across the greater Chicago area. Thus the venues range as far north as Winnetka Congregational Church in Winnetka and Alice Millar Chapel in Evanston; as far south as Rockefeller Memorial Chapel in Hyde Park and as far west as First United Church in Oak Park and Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest.
Other Chicago locations will be St. Clement's Catholic Church, St. Chrysostom's Episcopal Church, the Lutheran School of Theology and Madonna della Strada Chapel at Loyola University Chicago.
"It's going to be a lot of organ music but I think it's going to be a blast," says Alltop. "It's just a great project in a great city – that's probably been my biggest motivation to just keep working through the challenges."
Registration for the 10-performance series is $175. Individual concert registrations also are available at $25 for the general public, $15 for students. Admission to Laube's performance of Bach's "Clavier-Ubung III," Sept. 27 in Winnetka, is $60 general and $30 for students, including a boxed lunch. No tickets will be issued. To register, or to obtain further information, go to wfmt.com.
A new 'West Side Story'
Everything's coming up "West Side Story," or so it would appear.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will provide live musical accompaniment to the Oscar-winning, 1961 film, which will be projected on Ravinia's giant pavilion and lawn screens on Thursday and Friday nights. And the San Francisco Symphony has just released, on its in-house label, SFSMedia, a new complete recording of the landmark Leonard Bernstein musical, with music director and longtime Bernstein associate Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.
The handsomely packaged, two-CD set, taken from concert performances at Davies Symphony Hall in June and July 2013, is the "West Side Story" recording those of us who adore this American musical theater masterpiece have long been waiting for.
In one crucial respect it completely blows away the composer's ill-conceived Deutsche Grammophon album from 1984. Bernstein and DG thought operatic voices were what the show needed, and so they cast Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras as the lovers Maria and Tony, good singers who sound embarrassingly out of their element then and no better 30 years later.
Thomas, by contrast, employs excellent young singing actors whose ability to convey their characters and deliver those marvelous Bernstein songs with absolute conviction is never in doubt, and the same applies as much to the supporting performers as it does to Alessandra Silber's fresh, touching Maria and Cheyenne Jackson's ardent, full-voiced Tony.
Because this is a concert production you don't get all the dialog nor any real sense of stage action, but you do get what counts: The original Broadway scoring (with lush, beefed-up strings) is played with wonderful, jazzy abandon by the San Franciscans under today's foremost Bernstein interpreter. (A curiously laid-back, even prim "America" is MTT's only serious miscalculation.) Everything else about this set, including the clear, vivid sonics, makes this a terrific "West Side Story" that is unlikely to be surpassed on recording anytime soon.
Sharps and flats
Nicholas Hersh, winner of the 2012 Solti Foundation U.S. career assistance award and son of longtime Chicago Tribune sportswriter Phil Hersh, has been named assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. German conductor Markus Stenz also was recently appointed the orchestra's principal guest conductor.
South African soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi will replace Angel Blue as Clara in Lyric Opera's November-December production of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." A first-year member of Lyric's Ryan Opera Center, the singer will be making her Lyric main stage debut.
Tenor Jonas Kaufmann will portray the tortured poet in the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Massenet's "Werther," which WTTW-Ch 11 will broadcast as part of PBS' "Great Performances at the Met" series at 2:30 p.m. July 27. Mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch will sing Charlotte in the Richard Eyre staging, conducted by Alain Altinoglu.
Twitter @jvonrheinCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun