Checking Out the Boulder Bach Festival

By Angelica Olstad

When you think of Boulder you don’t necessarily think, classical music festival. However, on May 12 – May 15th in 2022, the Boulder Bach Festival presented its annual festival week.

As a Boulder High School alumn that spent most of my formative musical years being shaped by Boulder Public Schools, I participated in as many arts programs that the state could offer, which included competing in the Boulder Bach Festival when I was a kid myself. I didn’t participate much in outdoors activities as I was focused mostly on performing and music. A move to New York made a lot of sense for me (although ironically, I ended up discovering a love for the outdoors by participating and teaching with OutdoorFest and Mappy Hour).

Ironically, one of my old colleagues from my grad school studying music at the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana) now lives in Boulder, Colorado where she is the Artistic Director of Boulder Bach Festival, alongside her husband and co-director and conductor of BBF, Zachary Carretin. 

So when Mina asked me to cover the festival I couldn’t resist, especially as a former participant of Boulder Bach Festival myself! Also, I had seen a performance in 2019 so I knew I would be in for a treat. The festival did not disappoint. 

A little about BBF first… 

It’s been around for awhile, 41 years to be exact. It’s also gone through different iterations that was presented at the festival as part of an artistic retrospective celebrating its rich history and follows its development into the unique musical organization it is now.

One of the most interesting and unique offerings that BBF provides is that through the generosity and support of donors and with a personal collection from Artistic Director Mina Gajic herself, the organization has been able to perform early music on very rare period instruments. Don’t know what period instruments are? Don’t worry I’ll tell you.

Many folks are surprised to learn that many classical music instruments have evolved over time. Many of the modern instruments we know now looked and sounded very different hundreds of years ago. It’s really similar to the evolution of technology (e.g. rotary phones evolving into iphones).

For example, the modern piano as know it now was created to meet the pyrotechnics of virtuosity being explored by romantic composers such as Liszt, Brahms, Schumann, and Rachmaninoff (and yes, this is the really big impressive concert piano stuff that most people typically think of). 

However, the music of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, and even Chopin and Beethoven were written for different instruments ranging from harpsichord (light and delicate, no pedal, more like a lute) to piano forte, the predecessor to the modern piano as we know it. 

One of the joys of classical music is that it brings the audience very close to a moment in time and history. By playing music on the instrument that it was written for, the listener is now that much closer to a version of how the composer would have either played himself or envisioned the music to sound. 

So why are period instruments so special? For the most part, these instruments in their original form are very rare. While there has been a resurgence in period instruments and re-creating period instruments, it’s hard to find these instruments in their original form that are also in concert-ready condition.

Enter BBF’s uniqely rare collection of period instruments. The festival featured BBF’s double flemish harpsichord and the festival’s featured attraction, comes from Artistic Director’s Mina Gajic’s personal collection, a very rare 19th century Erard concert grand piano in pristine condition (it’s also blue and gold and objectively, a very beautifully decorated instrument). While its most famoulsy as the piano that Chopin played on, it attracted many turn of the century composers and musicians for its colorful and light sound quality. 

In addition to presenting these period instruments, directors Zachary Carretin and Mina Gajic sourced some of the country’s finest early music interpreters from London, Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam, Chicago, and of course, Colorado. 

As part of the BBF’s four day festival, there were also master classes, daily lectures that accompanied the day’s program, discounts for local wine and restaurants for participants to enjoy and even a forest bathing session led by one of BBF’s musicians who played a period lute instrument as part of Mappy Hour. 

Day 1

I arrived to the Boulderado, a historical Boulder institution. After checking in, I grabbed a bite at the Corner Cafe. Of course, I had to visit Chautauqua for a quick hike and enjoy the sights before attending the night’s performances.

Upon arrival, I was excited to see that the programming took a unique approach – instead of only programming Bach’s music, they made the choice to also include works of composers who either influenced his work or were influenced by him. It was a testament of how far-reaching Bach’s legacy really was in western classical music.

To start, Mina Gajic’s flawless interpretation of the virtuosic Harpsichord Concerto in D minor for harpsichord and strings, BWV 1052 was a highlight of the night. Her bold, fearless, yet exceptionally perfect technique came through on the flemish harpsichord she played on. 

Other highlights of the night were the beautiful stylings of flutist, Ysmael Reyes who performed the recently re-discovered Teleman Concerto in G Major and the fun, lively, and incredibly performance by violinists Yu-Eun Kim (2018 Art of Duo Competition winner) and co-director Zachary Carretin playing Concerto in D Minor for two violins, strings, and basso continuo. Improvised basso continuo, an almost forgotten art provided by Christopher Holman who is one of the world’s premiere organists, was a particular joy to experience in person. 

Day 2

For my second day in Boulder, I decided to take a stroll along the Boulder Creek as part of my daily connection with nature. After a brief meditation session by the water, I felt a renewed sense of calm and excitement as I entered the hall for day two of the festival. 

I particularly enjoyed the Trio Sonata in G Major, BWV 1039 by Bach which featured Ismael Reyes again on flute, Yu-Eun Kim on violin, New York-based cellist, Coleman Itzkoff, and Christopher Holman on both harpsichord and organ (yes he played two different instruments at the same time). It was unique instrumentation not often seen in chamber music and I loved it!

The night was rounded out by a brilliant solo performance by BBF’s Co-Director Zachary Carretin’s playing Teleman’s Fantasie No. 1 for violin solo that truly showcased him as one of the country’s top early music performers. 

Day 3

For Day Three’s nature activity, I went to NCAR’s Trail Head in Table Mesa. This was one of my go-to’s as a kid growing up. It was fun revisiting this hike that I knew like the back of my hand. The beauty of Boulder’s nature never ceases to amaze me :).

Before the performance, I also grabbed a bite from Hapa Sushi on Pearl Street. Also one of my favorites as a kid, I credit this restaurant for introducing me to a lifelong love for sushi. 

Feeling happy, full, and energized I got ready for Day Three which ended up being my favorite day of the whole festival. 

Interestingly, it featured two female composers (not common in the world of classical music) who influenced by Bach – Clara Schumann (wife of Robert Schumann and is often considered the mother of concert pianists) and a piece by Lili Boulanger, sister to the more famous Nadia Boulanger, teacher to many important and influential performers and composers such as Phillip Glass, Aaron Copland, and Quincy Jones to name a few.

The evening’s program also very firmly established Artistic Director, Mina Gajic’s musical authority as a tour de force as she carried much of the night’s program with collaborative and solo performances which showcased a wide musical range and extreme virtuosity.

Gajic gave a brilliant interpretation of the famous solo Mozart Fantasia in D Minor, K. 397 followed by a moving rendition of Clara Schumann’s art pieces with Chicago-based soprano, Josefien Stopplenberg. Gaji also played alongside Yu-Eun Kim for a violin / piano duet titled D’un matin de printemps by Lili Boulanger which was remarkably sharp, witty, and exuberant.

However, the highlight of the night (and of the entire festival in my opinion) was the Piano Quartet in G Minor, K. 478 by Mozart featuring Mina Gajic on keyboard, Paul Miller on viola, Coleman Itzkoff on cello, and Yu-Eun Kin on violin. 

Classical music is long-form entertainment. Pieces can range anywhere from 2 minutes to 45 minutes and often contain multi-movement elements that make up a larger body of work. One of the challenges of ensemble playing is working together to express each of these movements into a larger whole. Identify, what lines should come out, how instrumentalists work together to create musical ideas through phrasing, blending, and articulation as one cohesive piece of music.

It’s also really hard. It takes years of study, discipline, and guidance to be able to not just execute but to develop a strong point of view to create music that is accurate for the performance practices of the time. I like to compare classical music performances to watching professional sports. If the team works together well, trains well, and communicates well, they can make magic happen.

The ensemble performing the quartet gave an outstanding performance that quite simply did that, create magic. The quintet exemplified world-class music at its finest. Together, they created a seamless, beautifully interpreted, and flawlessly executed piece of music that I believe ranks in the top 10 best musical performances I’ve ever seen live. It was truly one of the best live performances I had ever seen. 

Day 4 

I was still buzzing from witnessing the incredible performances of Day Three so I decided to do a walking meditation in the fields of Boulder High School. I was feeling pretty introspective so I decided to do some grounding exercises, enjoy the greenery, and reminisce on my own experiences growing up as a musician in Colorado. 

Day Four did not disappoint. Titled, The Intimacy of J.S. Bach, the last day featured all Bach programming and featured a range of solo work, chamber music and choral work to close out.

One memorable moment was when New York-based cellist, Coleman Iztkoff gave a heartwarming speech before playing the very famous solo cello suite (also very well played by Iztkoff), Suite No. 5 in C Minor for Cello Solo BWV 1011. He expressed a great appreciation to the organizers of Boulder Bach Festival for providing this opportunity of high level music making and simply said, “As a New York artist, I can tell you, opportunities like this don’t exist even in New York. This is truly unique to be here doing this in Boulder, Colorado”. 

As twelve year of resident of New York, I couldn’t have agreed more.

My own experience with Boulder has sometimes been a difficult one. As a kid who grew up in the performing arts, the limitations of Boulder’s cultural and arts scene often felt frustrating. Yes, the mountains and the nature opportunities are one of a kind but I felt like in order for me to pursue a career in the arts I would have to leave Colorado to find it. This resulted in a move to New York City where I discovered my own journey with music. 

After experiencing the festival in its entirety, it gave me pause to think about how lucky the inhabitants of Boulder are to have such visionary directors like Zachary Carretin and Mina Gajic at the helm of BBF.

Both impressive musicians who have enjoyed international careers, for the last 9 years they have been tirelessly working to advocate for Boulder Bach Festival and transformed Boulder Bach Festival into a world-class music-making organization. By leveraging their equally impressive network to bring in top-tier talent for BBF performances they bring an unprecedented level of musicianship to the organization. 

Most importantly, they provide opportunities for world-class musicians to perform to a wider audience, share their gifts, and perhaps, most importantly, be fairly compensated for the years spent on practice and dedication to their craft – something I didn’t even think was possible when I was growing up and training to be a musician in Colorado. To attend this year’s Boulder Bach Festival was uplifting and inspirational to say the least.

The saying is that you can never go home again, but for the first time in a long while, I felt like Boulder was a place I could come back to again and again.

Make sure to check out Boulder Bach Festival and their upcoming programming opportunities HERE!

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