Calaveras Enterprise

Tuolumne Talk: Bach concerts encourage listeners

Forty years ago, Carl Wirth, a renowned composer who landed in Twain Harte from Rochester, N.Y., led an informal gathering of musicians in what would become the Sonora Bach Festival. He invited musicians to bring their own instruments and gather on the front porch of his home and the Eproson Restaurant for a weekend celebration of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Wirth, who composed more than 100 orchestral works, ballets and chamber pieces, is best known for his contributions to the repertoire for classical saxophone. So why Bach?

Admittedly naive when it comes to classical music, I asked this question of my buddy John Carter, a retired Columbia College music instructor who is on the publicity committee for the Sonora Bach Festival.

“Bach is considered by most musicians to be one of the finest, if not the finest, composer who ever lived,” John explained. “Because of the many different elements of his music – melody, harmony, orchestration, feeling, form – it is highly complex, like most classical music. But unlike many composers, the quality and richness of these elements are far above average. Bach had an ability to combine each of these creative elements in a way that makes the final product even greater than the sum of the parts.”

“One more thing,” he added, “Bach is considered in some circles to be the musician’s musician.”

According to John, trained, serious, classical musicians – like Carl Wirth – usually start Bach festivals because they see the value in the composer’s music. While Beethoven, Mozart or Chopin are also great, there is a certain awe these musicians hold for Bach that inspires them to create such festivals.

Ninety-four communities around the country hold Bach festivals. Since that first weekend in Twain Harte when Wirth organized a few concerts, the Sonora Bach Festival has grown to hold concerts every weekend in October. The venues change from concert to concert and also from year to year. This year’s concerts have been held in the historical ambience of the Church of the 49ers, the Country Cowboy Church and Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church.

Unlike some Bach festivals, which feature only professional performers, the Sonora festival includes a mix of local professionals, talented amateurs, visiting guest artists and youth musicians. The two remaining performances of the festival include the Locals’ Concert at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Church of the 49ers in Columbia and Bach’s Brunch at 12:30 p.m. Oct. 30 at Mt. Calvary Church in Sugar Pine.

Curious about John Carter’s introduction to Bach, I asked him to describe that moment.

“My Modesto piano teacher took a bunch of her students to the Berkeley Junior Bach Festival when I was in elementary school,” he said. “I hated it. What a torture to have to sit through that. But when I started learning some Bach piano music, I became fascinated with what he required my fingers to do and how, like clockwork, everything worked together. I was also moved by the emotion that these pieces stirred, although, at the time I couldn’t describe or even identify what was happening.”

John went on to explain how his relationship to Bach continued to evolve: “In high school, I had a good friend who was much more musically sensitive than me. He talked about music and composers, including Bach, in a way that piqued my curiosity. I discovered some of Bach’s great vocal works – the St. Matthew Passion and the B Minor Mass – and was profoundly moved. I became a Bach geek.”

Since John admitted hating Bach when he was first introduced to the composer’s works, I asked, “What should a newcomer to Bach pay attention to?”

“That is a great question,” John said. “First, be open to the possibility that there may be something in Bach’s music that is not immediately obvious. Really, truly assume that there is something in it that you can’t see yet – like in those hidden image 3-D pictures. Just listen for a while until your hearing expands, because it will.”

“In a live performance, where one is hearing Bach for the first time, I encourage a novice to actively listen. Allow your listening to jump around. Listen to the melody, maybe played by a soloist or the highest instrument. Then listen to the changing harmony or the rhythm of the melody, or close your eyes and listen to the emotion. Bach, like others of his time, only expressed one emotion in each movement. Or listen to how the melody is passed around from instrument to instrument.”

“Don’t give up,” he encouraged. “The more you listen, the more you will hear. Like Shakespeare, there is so much to appreciate with Bach that only comes with long association and repeated study. And that’s what makes it worth knowing.”

There are two more weekends of the Sonora Bach Festival, so take advantage of this marvelous opportunity to engage with a master musician right here the foothills of California. Follow John’s advice: “Assume there is a lot to hear. Challenge yourself to notice and isolate two or three different things: the melody, rhythm, accompaniment, harmony. Stay with it.”

Send word on your Tuolumne County event to

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Church of the 49ers, Jackson and Gold streets, Columbia

TICKETS: $10 at or 536-6330

WHEN: 12:30 p.m. Oct. 30

WHERE: Mt. Calvary Church, 24176 Pine Lake Drive, Sugar Pine

TICKETS: $35 at or 536-6330

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