From June 14 to 23, music lovers from Germany and well beyond head to Leipzig to retrace Bach's steps through the city he long called home and to hear the music he wrote there. This year's theme: Vita Christi.
The city is decked out with signs bearing the name and image of perhaps the most important composer of all time. Bach spent 27 years of his incredibly productive musical career in Leipzig. Music that is 250 years old resounds from every corner of the city center - sounds taken in by visitors both young and old i the St. Thomas Church and at the central market square.
A year condensed into a week
In 2013, the festival slogan is "Vita Christi" (Life of Christ), which ties in to a series of oratorios and cantatas that Bach premiered in Leipzig in 1735. During the run of this year's Bachfest from June 14 to 23, the series of cantatas from 1735 are performed as a cycle at their original debut sites, St. Thomas' and St. Nikolaus' Churches, in a concentrated form lasting a week rather than a year.
The point of doing so, says the festival's artistic director, Christoph Wolff, is allowing attentive listeners to pick up on connections between the works that might never be noticed in individual performances.
Renowned conductors like Trevor Pinnock, John Eliot Gardiner and Hermann Max are lending a hand to this unusual cantata cycle. It allows audiences a chance to hear that it was in his church cantatas that Bach created some of his most passionate, sensuous and melodious music.
Tradition of protest
Bach was also passionate in his disputes with local officials during his tenure in Leipzig. Something of that tradition continues on in the present day, as was evident in an open letter read aloud at the Bachfest's opening concert by a member of the St. Thomas Boy Choir. In it, the members of the choir once led by Bach himself call for a new elementary school. Surprisingly, however, they also speak out against the secular tendencies of the lesson plans - saying that they can't adequately perform Bach without religious instruction.
"Even in Bach's era, there was heavy dissonance between the interests of the choir and the political will among the city's leaders," the young singer read. "We believe this represents a misapprropriation of the Bach heritage by the city's fathers."
Georg Christoph Biller, currently serving as the choir's cantor, views the letter in the Protestant tradition of protest. "Of course, I saw in advance what the boys wrote. It would have made things for me easier to say, 'Don't do that! It'll just cause problems,'" he said, noting that the choir as well as the festival depend on local subsidies. "But I thought it was great and didn't change a single word," the choir director added.
Trying to respond to the open letter, the mayor of Leipzig was repeatedly interrupted by catcalls from the audience. No one could accuse Leipzigers of indifference to their cultural heritage. Locals take "their" Bach and the concerts of the 801-year-old St. Thomas Boy Choir very seriously, regardless of whether they're especially interested in classical music or not.
"My" Johann Sebastian Bach
Along with Bach's church cantatas, the festival also features oratorios like Beethoven's "Christ on the Mount of Olives" or Schubert's "Lazarus." Organ and chamber music concerts are on the program along with works that head in a more popular direction. "Bach for Us" is for families with children; the series "Bach - Reflections in Jazz" examines the musician from a crossover perspective and features musicians such as jazz pianist Ketil Bjormstad playing themes from Bach's work mixed with his own improvisations.
The world envies Leipzig for its Bach tradition, and many make a pilgrimage for the festival. Around half of all visitors come from outside the city limits, a quarter from abroad.
Several events, including the opening concert, were shown live on screen or even took place at Leipzig's market square. That's where Dettloff Schwerdtfeger, the business manager of the Bachfest, says he can really detect visitors' connection with the city's most famous composer.
"Out there it's like at high mass. The people listen in rapt silence."