The Bachfest in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church kicked off on Thursday with a multifaceted program. 

Making his debut at the Bach Festival, Andreas Reize conducted the opening concert with the Thomaner boys’ choir and the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Reize is the new Thomaskantor, or choir leader. The program included works by Johann Sebastian Bach and his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel.

In the evening, the Gewandhaus Youth Choir together with the Youth Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine performed works by Bach and the moving Suite on Ukrainian Themes Op. 2, by Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko. 

A choir and classical musicians performing.

The Youth Symphonic Orchestra of Ukraine performing with the Gewandhaus Youth Choir

The concert was streamed and is also available on demand on the YouTube channel “DW Classical Music.”

DW brings Bachfest to the world

“It is a pleasure for us, as the international media partner of the Bachfest, to carry the music and the message of Johann Sebastian Bach out into the world,” said DW Culture and Lifestyle Director Rolf Rische, referring to Deutsche Welle’s new media partnership with the Bach Festival.

“Bach is an international brand that not only attracts visitors from all over the world, but also fascinates DW readers and viewers on all continents.”

This year, visitors from over 50 countries are expected to attend the Bachfest’s program of 150 events, held from June 9-19.

A man dressed in black in a church is doing conductor's gestures.

The new Thomaskantor, Andreas Reize

Bach and his famous son Carl Philipp Emanuel

The motto of this year’s festival, “Bach — We are Family,” refers to the works by Bach and his large family of musicians, as well as today’s international Bach community; this year’s event brings together 20 Bach choirs from around the world to Leipzig.

At the opening night, Mayor of Leipzig Burkhard Jung pointed out that family is at the core of our existence and stands for home and security: “We see the Bach Festival as a sign of peace in times of conflict,” he said, referring to the Russian war in Ukraine.

The theme of the opening concert with the Thomaner choir was the Passion of Christ, starting with Johann Sebastian Bach’s festive Toccata and Fugue in D minor played by the new St. Thomas Church organist, Johannes Lang.

With mighty drums and trumpets, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra then performed Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Easter music piece, “Gott hat den Herr erwecket.”

“It’s a great, very fast opening chorus that really gets down to business,” Thomaskantor Andreas Reize told DW.

The Thomaner choir was up to the evening’s challenges. The legendary Ascension Oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach, “Lobet Gott in seine Reichen,” made the singers’ voices shine. For cantor Reize, it is important to bring out their soft and bright sound: “A boy’s voice naturally has many overtones, which we try to encourage,” he said.

Ukrainian musicians in Leipzig

At the guest concert by the Youth Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine (YSOU), which was founded in 2016 by the renowned Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv, Bach Festival Director Michael Maul emphasized that Bach’s music not only inspires enthusiasm but also provides comfort, support and reassurance.

“You all are now part of our big Bach family,” Maul said, welcoming the young musicians who performed together with the singers of the Amarcord ensemble and the Gewandhaus Youth Choir.

A choir and classical musicians performing.

The Youth Symphonic Orchestra of Ukraine performing with the Gewandhaus Youth Choir

The 40 YSOU musicians are being hosted by families in Leipzig. “We’ve heard tragic stories that are barely imaginable,” Maul told journalists. The orchestra’s last bus from Lviv left during a missile alert.

The concert was entitled “Verleih uns Frieden” (Grant us peace), after a song of the same name by church reformer Martin Luther. It was performed twice in the YSOU concert, once in the version by Johann Sebastian Bach and then in an arrangement by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.

The title speaks for itself, as does Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis” (I had much grief). The latter is about great sadness and pain that turns into confidence and consolation. “That’s something we wish Ukraine: comfort and confidence and maybe joy again,” Maul said.

Joining the Bach family 

The Ukrainian orchestra seemed truly at home while performing Mykola Lysenko’s Suite on Ukrainian Themes Op.2, which was greeted with frenetic applause. The piece, originally intended for piano, was written by Lysenko while he was studying music in Leipzig in the 1860s.

The Bach Archive found a version for strings by an Australian music librarian named Glynn Davies and commissioned him to write an arrangement with winds and strings for the Ukrainian orchestra. A Ukrainian piece, composed in Leipzig and arranged by an Australian: In festival director Maul’s eyes, this project also stands for the global approach of “Bach — We are Family.”

“We have a good working relationship with the Ukrainian youth orchestra,” DW’s Rische said. In 2017, the then newly founded orchestra was at the center of Deutsche Welle’s Campus Project. “It is an important task for us, as the voice of the free world, to report on the activities of this orchestra in particular,” Rische added.

Two men smiling, one of them holds a glass of wine. They are standing in a room filled with portraits of composers.

DW’s Rolf Rische and Bachfest director Michael Maul

Seeds instead of flowers

The soloists and conductors from the two concerts must have been surprised when they were given rolled-up certificates at the end of their performance instead of the traditional bouquets of flowers.

The Leipzig Bachfest, with its international guests, involves a lot of air travel, but the organizers are nevertheless trying to minimize the event’s CO2 footprint. One of their projects involves collecting donations to plant a “Bach forest.” So instead of offering bouquets of flowers to the musicians, the certificate that is handed out contains seeds to plant new flowers, Maul explained: “This way, everyone’s own bouquet of flowers will grow and we are doing something for nature.”

This text was originally written in German.

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