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A 21st-Century Grand Tour

David Hill conducted Juilliard415 and musicians from the Yale Institute of Sacred Music at Alice Tully Hall (pictured) and then on tour in England and France.

 (Photo by Richard Termine)

In the 17th and 18th centuries, travel became fashionable and more affordable, spawning a new sort of pilgrimage called the Grand Tour. This rite of passage brought young nobles from northern Europe to Italy and other foreign places to absorb culture, study, improve foreign relations—and have fun. In a parallel of this tradition of study, the Historical Performance department at Juilliard does a wonderful job of providing its small group of students with unforgettable educational experiences, especially with its frequent national and international tours. In recent months, Juilliard415 had two European tours. In May, we welcomed guest conductor David Hill and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music for performances in Alice Tully Hall that we then repeated in England and France. In June, we paired up with the Royal Academy of Music for another grand tour—we brought the music of Bach from New York City to the Boston Early Music Festival, the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, and Duke's Hall in London.

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Juilliard is beautiful in June. The weather is sunny, practice rooms are plentiful, and guests have arrived for summer programs. It was within this setting that 26 musicians from the Royal Academy arrived in New York and met 26 of us from Juilliard at our first Bach tour rehearsal. In a field as small as the performance and study of early music, it's exciting to meet other young artists who have gravitated from more traditional musical scenes to embrace comparatively lesser-known music and specialized instruments. We were a mix of Classical and Baroque singers and instrumentalists, and we hailed from all over the world.

During our week of rehearsals with conductor Masaaki Suzuki and concertmaster Rachel Podger, the Royal Academy musicians lived in the Juilliard dorm, and we inducted them into the world of Juilliard early music. In the Historical Performance program, we perform and rehearse together pretty much nonstop from the moment we arrive at Juilliard, and we naturally develop a shared sense of musical style and practice. The introduction of new musicians with their own styles and practices to our tried-and-true group was an exciting experience that we all grew from musically. It also set the stage for our second tour.

Every day of the tour was an adventure, but the three days we spent in Leipzig were the highlight. This small town is no larger than a 30-block radius, but there is more history and culture there than in any other comparatively sized one I've visited. Not only did Johann Sebastian Bach work, raise his family, and die in Leipzig, but the town, its churches, and the Gewandhaus supported and witnessed the lives and work of some of the most influential musicians in Western music. Famous Leipzigers include Heinrich Schütz, Orlando di Lasso, Georg Philipp Telemann, Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, and Richard Wagner. We visited the house where Robert and Clara Schumann lived from 1840 to 1844; the home Felix Mendelssohn inhabited from 1820 until his death in 1847; and the apartments where the Bach family resided next to the Bose family. To top it off, the hotel we stayed in happened to be on Richard Wagner Street—named in honor of the the composer of the Ring cycle, who was born in the neighborhood (in 1813) and studied at Leipzig University.

Performing the music of Bach in the Thomaskirche, which was one of Bach's primary musical homes, was a unique and personal experience for every one of us. Although all of us have diverse backgrounds and musical experiences, the music of J. S. Bach is one of the forces that draws us together. Personally, I have always enjoyed the challenges, ambiguity, and beauty that flow from Bach's music. His is also some of the first Baroque music I heard and played as a young Suzuki flute student. Great art draws people together for amazing experiences but it also has the power to remind us of our powerful connections to it. As we rehearsed and performed in the Thomaskirche, I was also conscious of the fact that it was Bach's cantatas in particular that had inspired my grandfather's love for the flute and his pursuit of a doctoral degree in flute performance and music education. Without that, my father might not have been a pianist, and I might never have been a flutist. The Thomaskirche was packed the night of our performance and with the influence of Bach floating through the air, we had the incredible honor of giving life to this music and sharing our love of it with each other and our audience.

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By Melanie Williams

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