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The Musical

Yes, during Covid, I wrote the book and lyrics for a musical about the Bach family and its struggles, joys, and sorrows, 7 days (in 7 scenes) when 7 Bachs collaborate to create the 7 Movements of the great Cantata 140. Each scene ends with a Movement of the Cantata, and presumptuously, I wrote lyrics to some of Bach’s best orchestral music for 9 songs that had to be in there. The book and lyrics may be accessed HERE.

The musical portrays a pivotal moment in the lives of the star-crossed Bach family. Bach had composed hundreds of cantatas in the 1720s — cycles of them — then went on to create other glorious things. Abruptly, in November 1731, he urgently stopped everything and rushed to compose a new cantata. Why? Solving that simple mystery lead me to worlds of revelations about the family. I quickly realized that the only way to tell the story of that amazing week was with a musical.

History has made a god of Bach, with all the resulting remoteness of worship. Even his talented kids – both those who gained fame and those who didn’t – were burdened with this awed glory. My intent in the musical is to bring to light Bach’s humanity, his convoluted family, and his profound and invaluable second marriage. It’s a complex story – sad, joyous, and thrilling — and made unique in the context of genius.

In February of 2023, an iPad-in-hand staged “Concert Version” — 8 singer/actors and a piano — was presented in the nave of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, featuring Frederica von Stade and the best singers in the Bay area.

Standouts among the noteworthy cast are:


Frederica von Stade (The Narrator) – von Stade is one of the greatest American opera singers of her generation. Since her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1970, she has performed in operas, musicals, concerts and recitals in venues throughout the world, including La Scala, the Paris Opera, the Vienna State Opera, the Salzburger Festspielhaus, Covent Garden, Glyndebourne and Carnegie Hall. She has also been a prolific and eclectic recording artist, earning nine Grammy nominations for best classical vocalist.

Philip Skinner (Johann Sebastian Bach) – Skinner has a long association with San Francisco Opera, with more than 380 performances in 55 productions. He’s sung Verdi at Carnegie Hall and Beethoven at the Hollywood Bowl, as well as performing major roles all over Europe.

Marnie Breckenridge (Anna Magdalena Bach) – Breckenridge has won acclaim internationally for a repertoire running from the Baroque to the Modern. From Jake Heggie’s “To Hell and Back,” co-staring with Patti LuPone, to being chosen by Loren Maazel for his many performances of “The Rape of Lucrecia,” she has appeared in major roles at most great opera houses south of the Arctic Circle.

The San Francisco presentation was the first step in the musical’s progress. A theater rubric states clearly that it takes an average 7 (that number again!) years to get a musical on. As I write this, money has been raised, numerous avenues are being explored, and soon this page will be up-dated to include information about the future of THAT WEEK WITH THE BACHS.

Here is a truncated article by Joshua Kosman, the principal music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle:

Bach and his family spend a harrowing week on deadline.

Joshua Kosman, February 17, 2023. Updated: February 19, 20

 

It all began with a footnote.

Connecticut writer William Kinsolving was immersed in a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach when he happened upon a curious detail of the German composer’s output. In November 1731, eight years into his long and troubled stint as the leading musical authority in Leipzig, Bach seems to have dropped everything to quickly compose a new cantata — the famous Cantata No. 140, “Wachet auf.”

This was striking, because Bach had already devoted several years of grueling labor on arriving in Leipzig to create hundreds of cantatas, covering the entire Lutheran liturgical calendar. Why did he need one more?

“I thought, that’s a hook, right?” Kinsolving told The Chronicle in a recent phone interview. “And so I started going into it just for fun, to find out what had happened.”

What he discovered was not simply a compositional anomaly, but a large family grappling with a range of creative and interpersonal issues.

The result: “That Week With the Bachs,” a two-hour musical that was unveiled Thursday, Feb. 16, in Grace Cathedral.

 

But what performers! For this public read through, Kinsolving — with help from Grace’s Ghiberti Center for Culture and the Merola Opera Program — had the services of some of the Bay Area’s vocal A-listers, reciting his lines and singing his lyrics retrofitted to Bach’s music.

Chief among these was the venerable mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who served as narrator and also sang a brief curtain-raiser that Kinsolving had created for her to the tune of Bach’s Minuet in G. There are few singers of any category who can rival von Stade’s wit or charisma as a performer, and that sense of enjoyment was contagious.

“William asked me to be part of this,” she said after the performance Thursday, “and I thought, ‘Sure, I can do a little narration.’ It’s pretty music, and I don’t know much about Bach, so this will be fun.

“The hardest part was getting it all on my iPad. I’m not as tech-savvy as these kids.”

 

Bach and his devoted young wife Anna Magdalena were splendidly embodied by bass-baritone Philip Skinner and soprano Marnie Breckenridge, in performances that conjured up a loving and robustly physical marriage. The oldest and most noteworthy of Bach’s 20 children — as well as a host of Leipzig officials and colleagues — were dexterously played by a cast comprising soprano Taylor See, tenors Jonathan Smucker and Kevin Gino, baritone Simon Barrad, and bass Chung-Wai Soong.

The picture that emerges of the Bach family is vividly realistic, a persuasive version of “Life With Father” if Father were a towering genius.

“I found there is a tendency to regard Bach as a god and put him on a pedestal,” said Kinsolving. “I wanted to bring him down to earth.”

The play is neatly structured in seven scenes, one for each day leading up to the Sunday performance of the new cantata, and during the course of that week, numerous themes get nimbly hashed out.

Bach’s three eldest sons grapple in different ways with their father’s overshadowing musical presence. His daughter, Catharina, searches for love and dreams vainly of the life choices that are unavailable to her as a woman. Anna, Bach’s second wife, mourns her dead infants (of her 13 children, only six survived to adulthood) and tries to defuse the resentments of her stepsons.

Bach struggles to adapt to newer trends in music, especially in a wonderful duet with his friend and fellow composer Georg Philipp Telemann, who has found a path to economic success in opera. And copious amounts of coffee are brewed and consumed.

The piece’s musical component is made up of excerpts from the cantata itself, along with other well-known Bach pieces for which  Kinsolving has written new lyrics. Catharina’s lament on the evaporation of her romantic hopes is set to the Air from the Orchestral Suite No. 3 (the “Air on a G String”); “Friday,” a full family celebration as the performance finally nears is drawn from the E-Major Violin Concerto.