Looking Back On Bach

Last weekend, as I walked into a performance hall at New York's Lincoln Center, excitement swept over me. I was looking forward to the program - an installment of the "Complete Organ Works" of Johann Sebastian Bach - but that wasn't why I was smiling. I was remembering when I performed in Alice Tully Hall myself.

This time, I wasn't the main attraction, as Englishman Christopher Herrick was now at the 4,192-pipe organ. A few years back, I had been in a chamber orchestra accompanying my college chorus - for a work by Bach, no less. It was a great opportunity.

I flashed back to my group's rehearsal as we took in the hall's lofty height and substantial balcony. Later, following a nervous but eager warm-up backstage, our solid performance was filled with exhilaration.

I was brought back to the present as Herrick made his way to the organ and launched into "Prelude and Fugue in D Minor." The audience warmed to his congenial manner and enthusiastic playing.

Just how big an undertaking is this Bach series, part of Lincoln Center Festival 98? From a factual standpoint alone, it appears daunting, as the works total 14 one-hour programs of trio sonatas, chorales, preludes, fugues, toccatas, fantasias, and more.

But to experience the musical demands involved makes it more awe-inspiring.

I've studied Bach on both the piano and violin. Sometimes, when I've taken a glance at a page of Bach's music, it looks straightforward: uncomplicated rhythms, and notes that don't jump around as much as some other composers' works.

But playing Bach is a different matter. Whether it's my 10 fingers on the piano keys or the four used on my violin's fingerboard, they can easily become a tangle.

And it becomes only more complicated on the organ, which has as many as five keyboards, a pedalboard (a keyboard played with the feet), and numerous stops (which determine what pipes make a sound).

Yet Herrick showed no sign of panic for the complexities of Bach and organ-playing. Mastering the multiple keyboards and pedalboard, he made the organ sing.

As the program concluded, I took one more look around the hall. Whether you're an accomplished professional like Herrick or a music lover like me, it's an honor to take part in a beautiful music experience at a such a renowned performance hall.

* The Bach series concludes at Lincoln Center on Sunday. The festival's Web site is www.lincolncenter.org/festival98

Judy Nichols is the assistant Arts & Leisure editor. Send comments to entertainment@csps.com

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