Bach Festival starts with organist Ken Cowan

The very first notes ever played at the annual Bach Festival in Winter Park were played on the organ. That was in 1935, when the Bach Festival Society kicked off its first celebration of composer Johann Sebastian Bach with his dramatic Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

This year, the society presents its 79th Bach Festival, which begins Friday, Feb. 14, with an organ recital by Ken Cowan. Other performances include a return of the popular "Concertos by Candlelight," Bach's setting of St. John's Passion and Hadyn's "Creation."

Cowan has been a featured artist at the national conventions of the American Guild of Organists, and has performed at several conventions of the Organ Historical Society and the Royal Canadian College of Organists. He is based in Houston, Texas, where he heads the organ program at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music.

In Orlando, Cowan will perform Bach's Toccata in E major, BWV 566; Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 29, "Wir danken dir, Gott"; and Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542, among others.

Cowan is lucky to have an organ to play. The instrument was dedicated with Rollins College's Knowles Memorial Chapel, home to the festival, in 1932. Both building and organ were a gift to the college from Francis Knowles Warren.

For decades, the Bach Festival featured an organist playing the works of Bach and his Baroque contemporaries. But by the 1990s, the organ's mechanisms were beginning to fail, and the recitals were dropped from festival programs.

In 2003, the society reestablished the tradition after a major refurbishment and enlargement of the organ. Money for the work was raised by Rollins alumni and friends, led by former dean of admissions John Oliver Rich.

For the "Concertos by Candlelight" programs, Knowles Chapel is aglow with flickering light while musicians play great works. This year's lineup features bassoon, harpsichord and violin concertos by Bach and his contemporary, Antonio Vivaldi.

Soloist Lara St. John began playing the violin at age 2, played her first solo at age 4 and made her European orchestral debut when she was just 10.

Here's what a colleague at the Los Angeles Times wrote of her performing style: "Lara St. John happens to be a volcanic violinist with a huge, fabulous tone that pours out of her like molten lava. She has technique to burn and plays at a constant high heat."

Joseph Haydn's "Creation" is one of the composer's most beloved works. Inspired by the biblical book of Genesis, psalms and the John Milton poem "Paradise Lost," "The Creation" depicts the formation of the world. In his oratorio for choir, soloists and orchestra, Haydn evokes chaos, the love of Adam and Eve and the appearance of light in the cosmos.

The festival's final concert is Bach's St. John Passion, composed in 1724. In the work, Bach musically and dramatically recounts the last days of Jesus, according to the gospel of St. John.


Bach Festival

Ken Cowan, organ: 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 14; $25

'Concertos by Candlelight': Vivaldi and Bach: Featuring soloists Lara St. John, violin; Ashley Heintzen, bassoon; Julie Batman, soprano; Joanne Kong, harpsichord; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21 and 22; $25-$55

'The Creation' by Haydn: featuring soloists Mary Wilson, soprano; Amanda Crider, mezzo-soprano; Robert Breault, tenor; Kevin Deas, bass; 7:30 p.m. March 1; $25-55

St. John's Passion by Bach: 3 p.m. March 2; $25-$65; featuring the soloists from 'Creation,' joined by Brad Diamond

Where: All performances take place at Knowles Memorial Chapel at Rollins College, 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park

Call: 407-646-2182


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