Bach fans flock to church for 7 1/2 hours of music

February 15, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

He's been dead for 243 years, but Johann Sebastian Bach can still draw a crowd.

Yesterday, hundreds of music lovers made their way to St. David's Church in Roland Park for all or part of the 17th annual Baltimore Bach Marathon -- 7 1/2 hours of nonstop Bach organ music played by 15 of the area's best church organists.

"It's part of our New Year's resolution," said Janet Romm, a Baltimore real estate broker and former classical pianist who attended with her husband, Ed Spangler. "We work a lot, and this year we kind of made up our minds to take advantage of some of the finer things," she said.

For Bill and Reba Sheavly, of Reisterstown, the concert was part pilgrimage, part escape. "We both love classical music, and we hate the stuff that's being played now, with a passion," said Mr. Sheavly, 69.

For him, it's also a sort of family thing.

"I'm trying to prove that I'm related to Bach," he said. "My great-grandmother, I think, was a Bach."

Ninety minutes into the marathon, nearly 150 people dressed from flannel to furs had filtered into the hard wooden pews at St. David's. The concert had moved to the fourth organist and the 12th of 57 pieces of music scheduled to be played by 8 p.m.

Not everybody can sit through the entire concert, even with a mid-concert refueling from "Bach's Lunch" and other refreshments.

"One p.m. is about the soonest we can get here, and we stay until 4:30 or 5 p.m., depending on how much we can take back here," Mr. Sheavly said, pointing to his rear, er, pockets.

As the Bach fans came and went, music from the church's 27-year-old Canadian-built Casavant and Freres pipe organ rose and filled the cream-colored sanctuary, which was bathed in a golden light from the south-facing stained-glass windows.

The sounds ranged from the thunderous -- rattling the pew-backs -- to the ethereal.

Randall Mullin, St. David's choirmaster and the first organist on the program, said the marathon was moved to St. David's after the first concert because the church organ's German Baroque design is particularly well-suited for Bach's fugues.

"The way the pipes are voiced is totally different," he said. Baroque organ pipes are more open at the bottom, allowing greater bursts of air to pass through. That produces an attack sound, or "chiff," that helps the ear distinguish individual notes within the note-packed, cascading baroque fugues.

In contrast, he said, "Romantic-design" organs produce a smoother sound but one less suitable for Baroque fugues.

Leading off the day with Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor -- which the handful of children in the audience might have recognized from the opening of Walt Disney's animated movie "Fantasia" -- Mr. Mullin commanded 47 ranks, or rows, of pipes; 35 stops, or levers; three 61-key keyboards; 32 foot pedals and an array of buttons, pistons and toe studs that would impress an airline pilot.

Eldean Krieger, interim organist and choirmaster at St. Thomas Church in Garrison Forest, performed the third shift yesterday. He participates, he said, "for the enjoyment of playing a different organ, the fun of playing Bach, and I like to perform. It's an ego thing, but that's OK."

He chose four Bach pieces which are seldom performed, three of which he had never learned before. Why Bach for 7 1/2 hours?

"Because if an organist plays anything, every organist plays Bach. It is basic to the repertoire," Mr. Mullin said. "He is considered the greatest organ composer, and he is more accessible than a lot of the other ones because of his traditional tonality."

That has helped to build the concert's audience over the years. "From 2 to 4 p.m. the place is usually packed," he said. "There are people you see here who you never see at any other concert."

Their donations help support other musical events at the church.

Some people come for an hour, or just to hear a favorite or familiar organist.

Other fans, armed with extra stamina, or padding, come for the full 7 1/2 hours.

Lucille Coleman, 65, of Baltimore, said she has attended all 17 concerts, and stays for the duration.

"This is my church, and I think we're very fortunate to have such a great music program," she said. "And when you have a whole day of Bach, how can you pass it up?"

Besides, when her interest flags, she conceded, "I have a book to read."

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