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Bach Provides a Timeless Challenge

Although Thomas Somerville has been artistic director of the 54-year-old Los Angeles Bach Festival since 1981 and a conductor and member of the staff of the Oregon Bach Festival since 1978, he keeps scrambling to keep presenting the repertory in fresh ways.

“There is no problem with alternating the major works every two or three years,” he says, “because we always find new challenges. Of course, there is always the challenge of how to bring Bach’s music before Los Angeles audiences in a new way.”

This year’s festival opens Friday and Somerville has come through with a season schedule that has a new emphasis on young artists. The opening night features a Bach recital by Odile Pierre, organist of the Church of the Madeleine in Paris. The major work this year is the B-minor Mass, closing the 10-day, 13-concert event Oct. 23.

“I’m very interested in people hearing Bach in a dramatic context,” Somerville says, explaining his preference for using forces such as an 80-voice chorus and a modern instruments orchestra.

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“I feel that I’m more successful in communicating that when I’m using women sopranos instead of boys. It is also more difficult to find talented boy soloists, and the acoustics (in Los Angeles’ First Congregational Church, home of the festival) make it difficult for boys’ voices.”

Somerville’s time with Helmut Rilling in Oregon has made him more comfortable and confident in such decisions.

“I’ve come in that time to get a sense of freedom in my approach to Bach. I’m aware of the historical precedent, but I don’t feel bound by it,” he says. “I have to take some sort of personal position about the music.”

The conductor, music director at First Congregational Church and professor of music at Occidental College, also enjoys listening to Bach on period instruments, however, and wants to give an increasing presence to such alternatives at the festival. This year the Early Music Academy, in residence cross-town at All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, offers a Baroque program at the festival, Oct. 21.

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“We’ve also tried in the last few years to program some contemporary German music,” Somerville says. Reinbert Evers makes his U.S. debut Saturday in a recital pairing Bach’s lute music with guitar music by Hans Werner Henze, sponsored by the Goethe Institute.

The participation of young musicians is another important aspect of the festival under Somerville’s administration.

“We want to create both now and future audiences for Bach. The best way to come to love the music is to perform it. In addition, it helps older audiences to see that the music of Bach is timeless.”

Next year, the Frankfurter Kantorei will open the festival with the “St. John” Passion, and Somerville and the Festival Chorus and Orchestra close it with the “Christmas” Oratorio. “There are always interesting possibilities,” Somerville says.

DANCE AWARDS: Violette Verdy, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet, teaches the Los Angeles audition class for the Prix de Lausanne, this afternoon at 3 at the Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica. The auditions provide travel expenses to the competition, held this time in Tokyo, in January. The class is open to the public: (213) 476-1439.

The Joffrey Ballet has received a $700,000 3-to-1 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to launch a new “In Celebration” series. The first program, slated for the 1989-90 season, pairs Nijinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” and “L’apres-midi d’un Faune” with his sister Bronislava Nijinska’s “Les Noces.” The 1990-91 program is in celebration of Aaron Copland, and the series the following season is devoted to Frederick Ashton.


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