Johann Sebastian Bach was such a prolific composer that, for 31 years, his music made up nearly all of the concert repertoire for the organization Bach in Baltimore.
This year, however, Bach in Baltimore has branched out with the launch of a new concert series called Beyond Bach. Founder and conductor T. Herbert Dimmock said the decision came from “audience encouragement” as well as a desire to increase the type of orchestral performances offered in the city.
On Oct. 27, the organization will perform Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. To be sure, Mozart and Beethoven are regulars in symphony halls around the country, but Maestro Dimmock intended to tap into a niche of early Classical pieces that he believes are “underperformed” due to their light forces: An early Beethoven symphony simply doesn’t require the number of players that most major orchestras keep on their roster.
To Dimmock, stepping just one musical period forward honors Bach in Baltimore’s roots as “a Baroque organization by design,” while the music of Mozart and Beethoven captures the “exquisite craftsmanship” of the Classical period.
Written in 1788, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 marks one of the composer’s rare ventures into more agitated material: It is one of only two symphonies Mozart composed in a minor key. The Beethoven, written between 1801 and 1802, is sunny by contrast, despite the fact that the composer was coming to terms with his hearing loss while writing it. In a letter penned around the same time, Beethoven confessed that he had contemplated suicide, but his commitment to composing stayed his hand.
The decision to diversify Bach in Baltimore’s repertoire has a practical benefit as well: It frees up their choir to prepare larger-scale pieces throughout the season. Upcoming highlights of that season include a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Handel’s “Messiah” and, in November, a world premiere of an opera by Hollis Thoms.
Maestro Dimmock founded Bach in Baltimore in 1988 after years of study with Helmuth Rilling, regarded by many as the world’s leading conductor of Bach’s music. Rilling’s interpretations highlighted Bach’s use of text painting (when the music illustrates what text describes) as well as the doctrine of affections, a theory of aesthetics popular during the Baroque era which posited that music was capable of summoning specific emotions within the listener.
“In addition to having these universal qualities that deal with human longing and communication and community, [Bach’s music] also underscores theological points,” said Dimmock — thus Bach’s occasional moniker as “The Fifth Evangelist.”
At the time, Dimmock had received a job offer to become the music director of Baltimore’s First English Lutheran Church — an offer that included ten professional singers in the choir and an endowment to conduct community outreach through music.
“I leapt at the chance to go to a place where the music of the Bach cantatas would be ideal for the resources available,” said Dimmock. “That first year, we began every concert by looking under the hood, so to speak, at the musical language. What was it that made those cantatas come to life?”
Since then, Maestro Dimmock has brought Rilling’s style of interpretation to Baltimore audiences every first Sunday of the month during their concert seasons, with a particular focus on the composer’s vocal music.
The organization has three components: a choir of 45 voices, an orchestra consisting of more than 30 local professional instrumentalists, and a collective of soloists and guest musicians.
“What I like about my people is they play with joy,” said Dimmock. “For me, what makes a concert greater than the sum of its parts [is that] something deeper happens in live performances that has to do with the chemistry, the community, that’s created by the players.”
If you go
Bach in Baltimore performs “Music of Humanity” at the Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St., Baltimore, at 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 27. General admission tickets are are $30.
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for the Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions.