Upstart festival takes Bach’s ‘genius’ music to Minnesota taprooms and churches

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How many hats can one person wear? In the case of Minneapolis musician Matthew J. Olson, the number seems virtually limitless.

Among Olson’s many titles: visiting choral director at Carleton College, assistant conductor for Twin Cities-based choir the Singers, composer, singer, writer, in-demand choral educator.

And now he’s adding another position: artistic director of the inaugural Bach Roots Festival, a brand-new venture he designed “to transform the antiquity of Baroque music” into contemporary concert settings.

The festival represents the evolution of Olson’s Oratory Bach Ensemble, a niche project founded five years ago to perform Bach’s sacred cantatas in their original context — that is, as part of full-blown worship services. Two years ago Olson created a parallel series called Bach and Brews, performing Bach’s lesser known secular cantatas in casual taprooms such as the one at Unmapped Brewing Co. in Minnetonka. As of this year, both strands of Oratory Bach Ensemble activity officially will fold into the new nine-day Bach Roots series, offering a mix of formal performances and the more casual brewery gigs.

We caught up with Olson recently over coffee to chat about the upstart festival. The conversation was lightly edited.

 

Q: What’s it like performing Bach in craft breweries?

A: The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. So many times we’ve heard people say “I’d never heard classical music live before.” Or “I didn’t know classical music could be so enjoyable.”

 

Q: Is it just Bach specialists who attend?

A: Not at all. Many of our audience members were there because they like live music and they like beer — and they were intrigued by the combination.

Q: Tell me about the festival’s name.

A: I got my own start as a folk musician, as a singer-songwriter. And in that arena “roots” means revering the music of our ancestors, and how are we honoring that music today. So “Bach Roots” seemed a good description of our particular niche — performing Bach’s music in a historical context, with a desire to connect to our modern-day culture.

 

Q: As part of Bach Roots you’re also performing Bach’s B minor Mass in both St. Paul and Minneapolis. Will there be a big keynote work like that every year?

A: The idea is that we end the festival each year with a major work, either by Bach or by a composer he influenced.

 

Q: Bach’s music is not easy to sing. How do you find the singers to do it?

A: We are very fortunate in the state of Minnesota to have so many musicians who know and love the music of Bach. For the Roots festival we have a core roster of 12 to 16 singers who I consider to be Bach experts. Hiring Minnesota-based musicians is really important to us.

 

Q: Any significance behind scheduling your festival for the month of June?

A: As we experimented with Bach and Brews, we just loved the contagious energy behind concerts on summer evenings, when Minnesotans come out of hibernation. That’s one factor. Another is simple logistics — we share a lot of the same musicians as the Bach Society of Minnesota and Minnesota Bach Ensemble, so there was a growing challenge complementing one another from a programming and scheduling standpoint.

 

Q: Oratory Bach Ensemble was a successful organization. Why phase it out now?

A: As the organization grew, it expanded. We added Bach and Brews, for instance. We recognize that there are two other organizations in town which specialize in the music of Bach. So we began thinking that it would be a good thing to specifically concentrate our activities in a summer festival, when less is happening.

 

Q: A couple of the Bach and Brews events are happening outside the Twin Cities, in Northfield and New Ulm.

A: Well, I grew up in New Ulm, and my den leader in Cub Scouts was the owner of Schell’s Brewery there — we had our den meetings in the taproom. So, when we wanted to take Bach and Brews outside the Cities, I called Schell’s.

 

Q: Might the festival expand even further in the future?

A: Yes. In the past week alone we’ve been contacted by people in Duluth and Ely about the 2020 festival. We’re proud Minnesotans. We’d love to find ways of connecting with the entire state.

 

Q: Are you confident you can make Bach Roots take root in the community for more than just a year or two?

A: We know how daunting it is to launch a new music festival and sustain it. But in each of the last four years we’ve doubled our operating budget, because of the generosity of about 60 donor families across Minnesota, and the wonderful funding the state of Minnesota chooses to provide. We plan to be here for the long term.

 

Q: You spend a lot of your time with Bach’s music. Do you ever get tired of it?

A: No, never. He was a genius. His great, transformational works can’t be done often enough.

 

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at artsblain@gmail.com.

 

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