A Farewell to Bach at the Sem? Some Bits and Reminiscence

I’m going to tell a story and get all wordsmithy in a bit here, so for those of you who are not interested in such a thing, here first are some facts for you regarding Bach at the Sem, the May 7th performance, and what performers for that concert have been told. If you have information that contradicts my understanding, please send me an email to let me know so I can make corrections to this post.

  • The American Kantorei (the chorus for Bach at the Sem) was informed a few weeks ago that the May 7th performance is set to be the final performance for our group and that we will not have a season next year.
  • To my knowledge, no announcement has been made to the patrons of Bach at the Sem, no mention of this being our final performance has been posted to any social media or other communications channels, and no releases have been made to the broader St. Louis arts community regarding this fact.
  • The reasons given to us for the end of our participation have been that fundraising had not been successful and that the seminary cannot shoulder the burden of paying for the costs to bring the concert season to the St. Louis arts community.
  • The only word from the seminary I’m aware of is the following response to a Facebook post I previously made:

    As we look ahead to the 2017-18 academic year — during which the milestone 500th anniversary of the Reformation will be celebrated — we are looking at how best to offer the music of Bach to the St. Louis community and beyond. We look forward to sharing our program schedule as soon as the dates and details are worked out.

  • No mention of any further program as alluded to in that quote has been provided to the American Kantorei at the time of this writing. As far as any of us know, the May 7 performance is our final one as an ensemble as part of Bach at the Sem. I do not have any inkling as to what the planned program schedule for next year may contain.

As it’s not clear to me whether people are aware of these facts, please share this post among your social media channels if you are willing and able. It is my hope and prayer that the attendance at the May 7 performance is greater than the space can bear, to show to Concordia Seminary the value the St. Louis community places on this concert series.

Again, if you have any information that would either shed light on these facts or would contradict them, please contact me via email as soon as possible so I can make corrections to this post. I reached out to the Bach at the Sem publicity account on Facebook to ask if they would like to provide a statement for this post as well, but at the time I published it, they had not yet responded. Should they do so, I will likewise update this post.

Those are the facts as far as I know them. Now, to that story I warned you about…

Prologue

I was a freshman in college, and with zero choral experience, I’d tried out for the Concordia University Kapelle on a whim. I had no formal voice training, but a very trusting person by the name of Kurt Amolsch took a chance on me.

That spring, he gave us the first choral score I’d held that was bound like a book. We sight-read the opening chorus to the St. John Passion—my first experience with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

I couldn’t keep up. There were so many notes on the page. So much was going on at once. I stopped singing and did my best just to follow along. I was clueless and adrift, feeling a fraud amongst others who had seemingly instant command of the material compared to myself. Bach had defeated me.

I left rehearsal crying, thinking that I could not possibly learn to sing such technically demanding music.

Two months later, I had a passable command over the material. We performed the work twice that spring. The St. John Passion remains one of my favorite works in the history of music.

Learning Bach

As a first year seminarian, my wife had seen the call in the school’s daily announcements for open auditions for something called Bach at the Sem. She convinced me to try.

I still didn’t know what it meant to audition for a group. I had no prepared material. I had only a single quarter of vocal teaching. I had no formal sight-reading training. (I still largely learn by ear, a fumbling of trying to read notes off the page, a lot of effort, and a sharp memory for music.)

Robert Bergt brought me into the American Kantorei, the group he had founded and then directed. He had been a student and teacher of Johann Sebastian for many years, and he imparted that knowledge and love not only of Bach but also of the broader baroque to those would listen.

I listened as much as I could.

For ten years, I performed with the group under his direction. It took many attempts for me to understand what I was doing, and in some ways I still don’t. He continued to trust me to be part of the music.

After Robert’s death in 2011, Bach at the Sem engaged in a series of tryouts to find the right director to take the helm of the program. I stuck with the ensemble, hoping to see the process through and learn from someone new. For the last few years, I have learned the music of Bach in a different and complementary way from Dr. Maurice Boyer, whose presence to the program has been a boon. He has also trusted me to bring my talents to the American Kantorei.

I have now been with the group for fifteen years, learning, sometimes struggling with, and performing the music of Bach. In my uneducated and humble opinion, the artistry of his music is unmatched. It transcends notes on a page. It conveys messages, emotions, and understandings that are more than the sum of its parts. Each piece I learn is burned into my mind.

It is in no small way a part of my life.

Generations

In those same fifteen years, we have added five children to our family. They have benefited directly from Bach at the Sem and the American Kantorei. We have brought them to performances from a very early age, provided them with music with which to follow along, and encouraged them to engage with the works of Bach.

As a seminarian and later a working parent, and not always one of means, I have always been proud of the gift Bach at the Sem has provided to the arts community of the St. Louis area. My wife brought my children to these performances for absolutely no charge, and they could learn through the artistry of the accomplished musicians performing the material as well as the scholarly program notes provided for each piece of the gift of the music of Bach.

I believe it has enriched their lives and brought them joy—not to see their father standing at the front, but to know and learn this music as patrons. And this has been made possible by the exceedingly generous free admission to all Bach at the Sem performances, in turn made possible by generous donors and the seminary as host.

I’m sad and disappointed to lose this resource, not only for my own family, but for other young people who may not now have the opportunity to sit at the feet of Bach and learn from his virtuosity.

Epilogue?

So, here I am, almost a full twenty years from being that adolescent who was thrown into the works of Bach and left crying, feeling a fraud.

I still feel like one from time to time. It takes a lot of work for me to prepare the music. I have been fortunate to learn from not only good directors, but talented instrumentalists and vocalists standing beside and around me as we bring to life the works of this 18th century composer, who is the author of hundreds of instrumental and choral masterworks.

The selections for what appears to be our final performance could not be better. They are meditative and benedictive works, drawing on themes of evening and of the need for protection and safety from an uncertain night. Bach knows from where this protection comes. He demonstrates so in the music.

Bach at the Sem has been the sole output for my musical talents for the last fifteen years. I find it hard to contend with the reality that I will soon unwillingly be forced to say goodbye, to watch the evening fall on something I and so many others have worked so hard to make a worthy endeavor.

And so, I am sure there will be some in the audience who will wonder why I am crying on May 7, as both figurative and literal evening comes. It will not be because I am unable to contend with the technical nature of the work of Johann Sebastian Bach as so many years ago, but because I will be unable to contend with its emotion.

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The Future of Media Is Broader

Matt just retweeted a link on Twitter to this post on Engadget, referring to the fact that at least to date in 2014, no album will have gone platinum in the United States:

The decline in album sales is certainly nothing new, thanks to the smattering of streaming options now available to eager listeners. However, 2014 looks to be particularly awful.Forbes reports that nearly 10 months into the year, no release since January has yet to reach platinum status — a release that sells 1 million copies (in the US). What’s more, only one has sold a million copies: the Frozen soundtrack that hit shelves last year.

I’ve been pondering this recently. Album sales are down across the board. Single sales are also down, at least as far as they are tracked. Usually, what’s blamed for this is the rise of the streaming model, where you pay a single subscription and get access to as much as you want.

But in a world where scarcity is no longer a thing, what if it’s rather that our consumption is changing?

I first started thinking about this when I changed my method for purchasing games to a digital one, both in terms of using console services and with my switching back to using the PC and Steam as the primary source of my game purchasing.

I noticed rather quickly due to that the fluidity of pricing, the types of recommendations I was receiving from friends, and the ease of publishing in a post-physical-media games economy, I was purchasing more things that years ago I would not have considered—or in most cases, would never have been made.

You can see this happening in terms of availability and ease-of-publishing. Just take a look at services like Loudr or Bandcamp. More people are able to publish more types of music or movies than ever before in the history of either medium. Digital makes things cheap and accessible. It democratizes them. (Look at what you are reading now. Fifteen years ago this was barely possible.)

So what’s the longer tail on sales of things like games, music, and movies? What if the future isn’t in huge sales numbers for a very few projects or products, but in smaller sales numbers spread across a far greater number of creators and artists? The removal of scarcity and the (relative) ease of production means that if I have a singular focus or preference as a consumer, I can focus in just those things.

If I like a specific flavor of jazz, I can listen to just that as long as I’m able to find artists that play it. If I like a specific genre of game, often now I can live just within that genre and play those things to my heart’s content.

And even further, the creators of the things I consume are closer to me than ever before due to the rise of blogging and social media. I can interact with them. They can engage with me, increasing my interest and the depth of my support for what they are doing. Everyone is a potential artist. Everyone is a potential curator, sharing their likes and dislikes as I often do here. Everyone can find others that share their unique interests, which further stokes the fire.

The future is less a handful of blockbusters, and more a broad swath of interests that engage a relative few, but more strongly than ever before. It’s already happening in games. It is starting to happen in music. Movies will be the last to change.

It’ll be fascinating to see how the entrenched industries keep up with this shift.

No Bach at the Sem for me this year.

Sadly, I won’t be joining my comrades in the American Kantorei this year in performing the Bach at the Sem series of concerts. I’ve been performing with them on and off for the last thirteen years, and for the last three years in a row, but the rehearsal and performance schedule just didn’t line up with what I could commit to.

I am disappointed to be missing out, but I wish them all the best and hope that this year (the first with a new Director after a long search) will be fruitful and produce more of the finest of music.

Ben Dodson’s iTunes Artwork Finder

You might have noticed the large-size artwork I added to the top of my music post this week. If you are ever looking for proper-sized or high-resolution artwork for your music collection, Ben Dodson has written a really cool little web app using the iTunes Search API to find the album artwork you need.

I use this tool to find artwork for albums that iTunes tends to miss in the automatic process, as well as for TV shows I have on DVD that I’ve ripped to my iTunes library (so the artwork looks correct on an Apple TV).

Check it out and search for something. The only downside is that stuff that’s not on the iTunes Store won’t return anything, but that’s rarely a problem in my experience.

Headphone Ampin’, Part One

When I work and travel, the big thing I always bring with me (that’s not my MacBook Air) is my music. Lots of people buy the largest-storage iPhone they can because they want to load it with apps or video, but I always do because I want to be able to carry as much music as possible.

And I care more about what that music sounds like than I suppose most people do. I will rarely buy music from the iTunes Store, and prefer to buy CDs and rip them to Apple Lossless instead of AAC or MP3.

I try to stretch my listening equipment dollar as best I can with effective and good-sounding ways to hear that music. When I’m at home, if I don’t need the headphones, I like to camp out in my living room, where I have some great floor speakers and a top-notch subwoofer.

As far as the space between my ears, I’m personally partial to the Sony MDR-V6 at home (with Beyerdynamic velour earcushion replacements); over-ear works best for me to not bother others and still get a pleasing sound. I recently replaced a broken pair of in-ear phones with the Etymotic MC5s for air travel, which are good but not great. (I’m planning un upgrading soon to ER-4s with custom molds.)

The problem with good headphones is that they take some juice to drive. The Etymotics in particular see me jacking the output on my iPhone pretty far up the scale to get a good response. To try and remedy this situation—and squeeze a bit more quality out of the source as well—I decided to look into portable headphone amps.

Ideally, I’d like to run my headphones off the line-out source from the iPhone’s dock connector and let a dedicated amp do all the work. I’m giving some low-cost solutions a try. In particular, I’m looking at products from Fiio, a Chinese manufacturer that specializes in portable amps and DACs. (They even have a portable guitar amp, which is an intriguing idea.)

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The first product I tried was the E6, which is a tiny little thing (about 1.5″ square), cost only $30ish, and gets 10 hours out of a charge. It came in today, and I played around with it using both sets of ‘phones I have, using the EQ settings and such. I was using the headphone out on the iPhone and I was disappointed to find that it didn’t drive the signal much more than the default amplifier on the phone.

It’s a neat little product, but I found the lack of visual feedback on the amp level frustrating – I couldn’t tell how far up I had it cranked without just holding the button and hoping for the best. It’s tiny, portable, and cheap, but that’s where the good things end.

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The sound was good, but it didn’t feel like I was getting any real quality benefit from it, so I shipped it back to Amazon today and instead ordered the E07K, which is a portable DAC with an amp (I know that the iPhone won’t pass off it’s DAC duties, but I’m more interested in the more powerful amp). I grabbed a dock connector to 3.5mm cable with it as well and will be testing it out next week.

I’ll be sure to post about what I find. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions for portable amplification, please leave a comment and let me know what you have used and whether you would recommend it. When looking up this information, I was surprised to find that information (and especially reviews) of these products were few and far between.

Bach at the Sem: 2012—2013 Season

The concert series for this year starts next month (and rehearsal is already next week) for the 11th year I’ll be participating in Bach at the Sem as a vocalist.

I’m really looking forward to this year’s series and if you are in the St. Louis area, you are welcome to attend. No tickets are issued and admission is free. All concerts are at 3:00 p.m.

Sunday, October 28; Guest Conductor Dr. Martin Dicke

  • BWV 70, “Wachet! betet! betet! wachet!” – J.S. Bach
  • BWV 80, “Ein’ feste Burg” – J.S. Bach
  • motet “Herr, auf dich traue ich” – Heinrich Schütz

Sunday, December 2; Guest Conductor Dr. Andrew Megill

Sunday, March 24; Guest Conductor Dr. Jeffrey Wilson

  • BWV 22, “Jesu nahm zu sich die Zwölfe” – J.S. Bach
  • BWV 182, “Himmelskönig sei willkommen” – J.S. Bach
  • choruses from BWV 143, “Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele” – J.S. Bach
  • “Worthy Is the Lamb” (from Messiah) – G.F. Handel

Sunday, April 28; Guest Conductor Dr. Scott M. Hyslop

  • BWV 69, “Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele” – J.S. Bach
  • BWV 190a, “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” – J.S. Bach
  • choruses from BWV 120, “Gott man lobet dich in ser Stille zu Zion” – J.S. Bach
  • choruses from BWV 143, “Lobe den Herrn meine Seele” – J.S. Bach

All concerts are held at the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus on the campus of Concordia Seminary St. Louis. If you decide to come, please let me know, or if you have any questions, I will be happy to answer them.