Music is one of the art forms that truly feels timeless. Despite decades and even centuries passing by, some pieces of music composition still feel relevant, timely, and impactful today.
Johann Sebastian Bach was a notable historical composer from the 1600s and 1700s, but his work and impact on the industry are still celebrated today. Fort Wayne is home to a volunteer classical music chamber ensemble that celebrates his work with every performance.
The Bach Collegium Fort Wayne
performs concerts of Bach’s music year-round. Their latest is even more of a special one, a concert
to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Bach’s creation of the Passion of St. John on Sunday, March 3 at Zion Lutheran Church.
Artistic Director Koji Otsuki is a passionate and professional scholar of Bach and has performed and conducted all over the world. With a Master’s degree in choral conducting from Temple University and experience as a Japanese government fellow under the Director of the Bach Collegium in Japan, Otsuki is a versatile performer, teacher, and conductor. He considers the Passion of St. John a monumental work and is proud to honor it 300 years after J.S. Bach performed it on Good Friday in 1724.
“It is like an oratorial when it comes to the genre of it,” Otsuki says. “It consists of biblical reading, and everything from the Bible is sung. All the text is set to music. There’s a reading of the Gospel of John, Chapters 18-19 and we have the Passion narrative, the suffering of Jesus, that’s set to music. In between some of those scenes being sung by the Evangelists, we have some arias and ariosos that are the reflection of what is going on in the Passion narrative. It is a little bit like an opera, but it’s not staged.”
When it comes to the passion Otsuki has for Bach, he feels it deeply. If he could only take one thing on a deserted island, it’s Bach’s music, he says.
“I love Bach so much and I am so passionate about Bach,” Otsuki says. “It’s about music and how it’s composed. Essentially, Bach can be three different things at the same time. One, some people can find this bliss or timelessness watching a piece of art, painting, or sculpture. It may be the artistic timelessness that I can get from Bach. Two, the music can actually empathize with me. It kind of nurtures you, and you feel like you just become a better individual after listening to Bach. It has that power. Three, there’s the religious part of it, it has those beautiful messages built into Bach’s music, even without the text. That can really uplift me.”
As the artistic director, Otsuki gets to choose and hire the instrumentalists for each concert. He enjoys cultivating a culture of freelance professional musicians who truly enjoy their work and feel artistically gratified.
“When I travel to Fort Wayne, one of the things that I look forward to is to work with those people,” he says. “When the concert comes around, we get to have everyone in the same room focused on the same goal, working on amazing music. Then we finally get to share it with everybody else in the venue, whether it be a concert hall or a sanctuary of a church. I get to share that wonderful feeling with everyone else in the room.”
The Bach Collegium Fort Wayne
Tom Remenschneider, president of the Board of Directors of Bach Collegium Fort Wayne, spoke about the history of the local group. Although he’s not a musician in the group, he’s a church organist, choir director, and former conductor of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Chorus.
“We’ve been around for 23 years,” Remenschneider says. “It started when our former Director Dr. Daniel Reuning retired from the Concordia Seminary and wanted to continue bringing Bach's works to the public. He decided he was going to do so with instruments from that time period.”
Remenschneider, who’s been with the nonprofit for around 20 years, says the reason Bach’s music remains timeless can be traced back to the composition style.
“It’s incredibly beautiful, and his style of composition was based on everything that came before him and anticipates what comes after him,” he says. “He’s a brilliant composer and his music touches the real core of the human experience: joy, sadness, life, and death are all important in Bach’s music.”
Although the Collegium has been around for more than two decades, Remenschneider says some locals are still surprised to hear that such a thing exists. And once at the performance, they're even more pleased by what they hear.
“It's a really refreshing sound to hear this music performed in that way with these instruments in the spaces we perform them in,” he says. “We use baroque violins and baroque string instruments, they're a little bit different from modern violins in the strings that they use. Their bows are a little bit different so it makes a different sound than the modern violin.”
Baroque oboes, wooden flutes, harpsichord, and a small organ help round out the ensemble, complete with about 20 instrumentalists and vocal soloists, plus 35 chorus members. Despite being centered around a religious experience, and taking place in a church, the Bach Collegium encourages non-religious attendees too. Universal elements of loss, betrayal, and the human struggle are relatable for most people.
The Bach Collegium Fort Wayne
“Somebody could come and listen to it for the religious purposes, and find it very meaningful. Other people could come just for the merits of the music itself and find it very meaningful,” Remenschneider says.
Bernadette Fellows is the current social media coordinator for Bach Collegium but started out as a volunteer vocalist in the choir. She missed singing as a full-time worker and mother, so she signed up to be part of a concert last fall.
“It was an amazing experience,” Fellows says. “Koji is such a talented artist director and he took so much time to explain not only how to do it technically proficient, but also the deep symbology of the music of Bach. It made me even more interested and gave me a greater respect for this great composer.”
Some other members have been in the ensemble for more than a decade, which was welcoming and helpful to newcomers like Fellows.
“It’s something that’s very special but not everyone in Fort Wayne or the local community knows that it even exists,” she says. “This is a group in the here and now, made up of people in our city, but also talented musicians from all over the region. It’s an experience that you don’t have many opportunities to get in Fort Wayne, and the fact that they’re doing this in the city in places that are accessible and reachable – that’s something to be celebrated and hopefully supported for years to come.”
The J.S. Bach St. John Passion 300th Anniversary Concert takes place on Sunday, March 3 at 4 p.m. at Zion Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne. Tickets
are $25 for adults, $10 for students, and free for children 12 and under with an adult.