After gathering each summer for years to perform works by Bach and other great composers at the Carmel Bach Festival, a group of musicians decided to continue that tradition in the face of COVID-19, and a remote recording project including people from across the country was born.
Jos Milton, associate professor of music at the University of Mississippi and a member of the festival’s professional chorale since 2014, participated in the Operation Bach project as a tenor.
“Operation Bach is a collective of musicians from around the world who became friends at the Carmel Bach Festival in California,” said David Gordon, who recently retired from the festival after 30 years as a soloist and staffer, and who narrates some of the project’s videos. “They have joined together, recording remotely from various places all over the globe, to share their music and honor the festival, whose concerts would have taken place July 18-Aug. 1, 2020.
“Nine vocalists and six instrumentalists have recorded a series of four-part chorales by J.S. Bach and are releasing one each day during the two weeks of cancelled concerts.”
New listeners can catch up on the recordings released so far at http://operationbach.com.
“The 14 days of posts include the 12 chorales from Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, framed by chorales from two other works,” Milton said. “The chorales are short and are based on Lutheran hymns that 18th century audiences would have already known; in fact, many of these tunes are still well-known today.
“Bach’s genius is in how he creates harmonizing layers that reflect the intention of the text. The melody is asserted in the soprano voice, then Bach’s harmonies give each line dramatic effect to tell the story of the Passion.”
The Carmel Bach Festival was founded in 1935 to create beauty in the midst of the Great Depression, “and in 2020, in the midst of the ‘Great Pandemic,’ 18 friends have done the same thing,” Gordon said, calling Operation Bach “a true expression of joy and community, right from the heart.”
This is Milton’s seventh year as a member of the chorale.
“Getting to sing with the same people each year builds tremendous camaraderie within the group, and also helps get our sound to a high level of artistry,” he said.
Jeff Fields, who has been singing baritone with the festival since 1998, collaborated with Gordon and others to create Operation Bach. He said including Milton was a no-brainer.
“He had a prominent solo during last summer’s festival that brought many of us to tears – a simple Irish tune that Jos sang with moving directness and warmth,” Fields said. “His amiable manner and gorgeous voice have made him a huge asset to the festival and a wonderful colleague, so I thought of Jos immediately when I was asked to recruit some singers for this project.”
“The Carmel Bach Festival Chorale is one of the finest professional choral groups in the nation, and membership is highly competitive,” he said. “Jos Milton is a distinguished vocal artist.
“I’ve enjoyed him in concert and in solo recitals, and the Carmel Bach Festival is lucky to have him in its performing ensemble.”
Adding to the interest of this project is how it was edited together for a specific effect. After each musician recorded his or her part, the editor worked with Braxton Boren, a professor of audio technology at American University, who developed an acoustical rendering of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach was concertmaster.
“Individual instruments and voices can be placed in arbitrary positions throughout the church and rendered into a coherent whole,” Fields explained. This means that someone listening to Operation Bach’s videos will hear the music in the same way a parishioner in the pews in 1723 would have heard it during Bach’s time.
The chorale videos can be found at http://operationbach.com and by searching for “Operation Bach” on social media platforms and YouTube.
By Lynn Adams Wilkins