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March 21, 2024

Bach Virtuosi Festival

An interview between John Thiessen and Lewis Kaplan

Lewis Kaplan RS ParkMarch 21 marks the first day of Spring as well as the birthday of J.S. Bach, whose surname, ironically, translates into English as “spring” or “brook”. To commemorate the composer’s birthday, we are joined by Lewis Kaplan, who at the tender age of 90, has founded a new Bach festival in New York. Talk about the epitome of optimism! In addition to Lewis’ boundless energy and ubiquitous smile, he has an inspiring clarity of purpose: bringing colleagues together to play extraordinary music. GEMS will co-present the inaugural Bach Virtuosi Festival in New York this May 13–21. Welcome, Lewis.

It is a great pleasure to work with you, John. In addition to your unrivaled Baroque trumpet playing, your musical insights, depth, and integrity are rare indeed.

Lewis, you are very kind. We first met in Portland, Maine about a decade ago, where you invited me to play Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 at your festival. What seemed remarkable at the time, but which I now understand as your way, was that you called me! Usually these days, invitations come by email from an organization’s representative. I’ll never forget our telephone conversation and I suspect many of my colleagues have had a similar experience.

I knew Richard Colburn, the billionaire benefactor of the Colburn School in Los Angeles, quite well. I stayed with him at his beautiful home in LA and would visit with him at his chalet overlooking Salzburg three or four times during the two weeks I was teaching each summer at the Mozarteum. One afternoon sitting with him in his kitchen I asked, “Dick, what is the secret to making so much…? Forget it, Dick, it’s a stupid question”. “No, ask me” he responded. I repeated the question and again halted before finishing, repeating it’s a stupid question. Again, he insisted, “Ask me.” “Okay, what is the secret to making so much money?” “Not a stupid question at all,” answered Colburn. “It’s not the smartest guy, not the one who puts in the most hours, it is the person who can motivate others.” I thought about this, whether being a festival director or teaching talented young people, this became my yardstick — the way I measure my own success or achievements. Was I able and did I motivate all around me?

Bach Virtuosi_Eternal 5That sense of wanting to motivate others is clearly evident in your own musical motivation. You trained at Juilliard under the legendary violin pedagogue Ivan Galamian and went on to perform internationally as a soloist. You count Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Emanuel Ax as friends. Like you, they are chamber musicians at heart. I suspect that nothing gives them more joy than to play great music together. What makes you singular, however, is your vision in providing opportunities for chamber music to flourish. You founded the Aeolian Chamber Players and then brought the ensemble to be resident at the Bowdoin International Music Festival which you also founded. More recently, you have focused your attention on Baroque music with the Bach Virtuosi Festival in Portland, Maine. From Elliott Carter and George Crumb at Bowdoin to Bach seems a remarkable and not altogether predictable journey, but the unifying factor, again, is great music performed by devoted chamber musicians.

As you said, great music is great music. I found playing and commissioning new music by extraordinary composers challenging, exciting, having no idea what the future would bring. Bach was a constant from my teens to this minute, but his music has taken on different meanings over the decades. As a youth, it reached me probably more on a technical level. Now it is a solace, a compendium of the many meanings of life that no one better expressed in music.

I think I understand your idea of Bach as solace, even though as a player I continue trying to master the monumental technical challenges inherent in his trumpet writing. For me, at present, the solace comes in the movements I don’t play. ‘Et in terra pax’ from the Mass in B Minor would be the prime example. This May, the Bach Virtuosi Festival, which has performed in Portland, Maine since 2016, will have its debut season in New York. How did this come about and what will early music patrons hear?

Quartet Emi Renee Beiliang ArthurI had wanted for several years to bring the Bach Virtuosi Festival to New York, in addition to Portland. Three years ago, the wife of a dear friend died and, without any foreknowledge on my part, left a generous bequest to the Aeolian Chamber Players Inc, a tax exempt not-for-profit, without specifying how the monies were to be used. Although these funds were not enough to underwrite the festival in its entirety, I jumped at the chance to open in New York and started immediately to make plans toward making the festival a reality. I have called the opening concerts “The Eternal Bach”. This happened rather fortuitously. I read this winter about the Golden Record that is aboard Voyager One, the spacecraft NASA launched in 1977 in the quest for intelligent life should it encounter such in distant space. The Golden Record includes three works by Johann Sebastian Bach, the most by any composer. These three works fit wonderfully into the BVF repertoire and are included in our opening concert. One of them, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, features the trumpet, to be played, of course, by you.

Lewis, I am already hard at work preparing! In addition to the festival concerts, there will be a special lecture entitled “The Eternal Bach” presented by your good friend and esteemed scholar Christoph Wolff. What is the significance of that intriguing title?

When I asked Christoph Wolff if he would open the festival with a talk on some aspect of Bach of his choosing, he answered yes, and what was the repertoire? I responded with the program being built around “The Eternal Bach”. He answered: “There are few names in music, western civilization, or global culture where the attribute “eternal” does not seem unsuitable, inappropriate, and hyperbolic. Johann Sebastian Bach is one of them.” Amen.

How wonderful that you are providing your audience with the occasion to ponder the significance of Bach and his music before the festival concerts begin. How can the GEMS community support you and the Bach Virtuosi Festival?

I think the most important thing is “gather round”. Come to the concerts. Hear the music of Bach performed by some of the greatest Baroque players and share our joy listening to the world’s greatest music by the world’s greatest composer.

Lewis, we hope many will take you up on it! We wish you and your festival success this season, and for many years to come!

More information & festival tickets

GEMS is a non-profit corporation that supports and promotes the artists and organizations in New York devoted to early music — playing repertoire from the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and early Classical periods.