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The Bach Society of St. Louis: 75 years old and still singing strong

The Bach Society of St. Louis at a previous concert at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church
Bach Society website

A 75-year life lived productively and well is an achievement for any person or organization, but it is especially impressive for any specialized musical association in these days of organizational saturation. Thus it’s cheering to have the opportunity say Hooray! for the Bach Society of St. Louis.

Praise comes not only for reaching three score and 15 with grace and steady ambitions for the future but also for its enduring commitment to some of the world’s greatest and most affecting music and to presenting it with the sort of care and attention that sing quality.

Perhaps best known in St. Louis for its annual candlelight concert, the society presents three other concerts every year. One will be at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, 1413 North 20th St. There, concert goers and the once again in-the-news neighborhood will be anointed with music from the BWV – the Bach Werke Verzseichnis, the cataloging system organizing the work of Johann Sebastian Bach’s work.

According to Bach Society Conductor A. Dennis Sparger, the first half of the program will be entirely works by Bach,with other appropriate composers joining Bach following an intermission. The concert will conclude with Bach’s "Dona Nobis Pacem" from the B Minor Mass – the music that prays, “Give Us Peace.”

Graceful touches such as that – sending the audience out into an autumn afternoon with such an aspiration – are distinguishing qualities of the entire concert. In it, Sparger’s predecessors – “six exceptional and committed conductors,” as Sparger called them in a brief history he’s written – will be honored with music representative of his particular turn at the podium. They are the founder and first conductor, William B. Heyne, who served from 1941-1972; James Paul (1972-1974); Ronald Arnatt (1974-1980); Donald Chen (1980-1982); and William Partridge (1982-1986). Sparger has been conductor for 30 years.

Sparger said the concert will also bring alumni back to town – “some of the people who have made us who we are today.’’ For example, soprano Mary Wilson, who began her career in St. Louis singing at Christ Church Cathedral, for Opera Theatre of St. Louis and for the Bach Society, is on the program, singing the Handel “Gloria.”

“She has sung 10 major solos with us,” Sparger said. One of Wilson’s music-student stops was at Washington University. In 2003, she sang the role of the Controller in the American premiere of Jonathan Dove’s opera “Flight” for Opera Theatre. She now lives near Memphis with her choir director husband, Todd, and their son, Fletcher.

An administrative alumna, Alayne Smith, executive director of the company for many years, gets the spotlight for focusing the concert and giving it its exuberant “Bravo Bach!” name. Retired veteran St. Louis broadcaster Ron Klemm, who for many years was a mainstay of the old KFUO-FM radio station, will narrate the program.

The Bach Society’s 75 years have had the usual crescendos and diminuendos so many music organizations ride up and down. Sparger said at the 13 year mark, in the 1950s, the organization was $12,000 in debt. “That doesn’t sound like much today,” he said, “but in fact that's $100,000 plus in today’s money.” Along the way to 2015, there have been other rises and falls of financial health.

To steady that situation, the society’s board brought forth the magic word: “endowment.” There actually are two, Sparger said. One was created with a 10 percent share of an estate that amounted to $170,000, and now amounts to $200,000. The society is allowed to borrow from the fund if necessary; loans are repaid with interest.

The other fund is a work in progress. It would endow the society’s conductor’s chair. Sparger said he is touched that the board wishes to name the fund for him. The goal is to raise $1 million, and the organization is within $90,000 of achieving it. As soon as the society is within $50,000 of goal, Emerson has pledged to pitch in the remaining $50,000. Sparger said the board of the society is committed and generous “across the board.”

Although Sparger is in constant touch with heavenly music -- some might say in control of it – conductors don’t hold on to their batons forever. Sparger is very much aware of that reality. He is committed to maintaining the organization’s hold on artistic quality and integrity. He sees his position as a desirable one, which will be filled without trouble after a national search.

But conducting music is only a part of the job description. Beyond the concerts, the society has an education program started in 1989 by Sparger to help talented young singers along their ways to hoped-for performance careers. One of the success stories is Mary Wilson’s, mentioned above.

The Bach Society also provides scholarship assistance. More and more, private organizations jump in to fill gaps in support of one sort or another for talented boys and girls and young men and women. Sparger bemoans the loss of public school music programs, programs that once provided basics for children as they moved through their elementary and secondary school careers.

“Although some good ones remain,” he said, “most are largely gone. A way for giving back to St. Louis youth is mentoring high school students and giving them a broader picture” of careers in music – teaching sight reading, showing the hard work of rehearsals and dress rehearsals. It is background information, and it is important.

So while the carols and the candles are important and are part of St. Louis’ heritage, and while the other concerts are very much part of the fabric of the musical world of St. Louis, Sparger’s and the society’s commitment to education and to giving back to the community balances the scale of involvement.

If there is to be a future for serious music of the sort the Bach Society presents, education will be an endowment of another sort, one extending value equal to money.

Although it is good and just to participate in organizational eupnea (diaphragmatic breathing) to blow out 75 glowing candles, the Bach Society isn’t taking to the pasture where musical sheep may safely graze, but onto new musical achievements and a centenary not so far away.

Bravo Bach! The 75th Anniversary Season

Where: St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church, 1413 North 20th Street

When: Sunday, Oct. 18, 2:30 p.m. 

How much: Tickets are $25 to $45

Tickets and information: www.bachsociety.org/

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