When vocalist Carol Brown assembled a collection of Salt Spring Island musicians in her living room for a read-through of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in December 2004, no one realized the event would inspire the founding of a new institution.
Brown sparked the birth of Bach on the Rock as a workshop for professional and semi-professional musicians, inviting choral singers to rehearse and perform the oratorio with a scaled-down orchestra at her home. The group has by now entrenched itself in Salt Spring’s cultural landscape and has been transformed under the guiding hands of Brown, later director Jim Stubbs, and current director Michael Jarvis.
The impetus to create Bach on the Rock came through a combination of wanting to sing and hear Bach’s music performed, and sensing a similar need from music lovers on Salt Spring. Brown felt that such an organization would strengthen and build ownership in the community. “I had listened to people at ArtSpring and I could hear this longing for something they could call their own,” Brown recalls.
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio comprises six separate but related cantatas. After the first workshop, Brown fulfilled a dream by unveiling the entire oratorio over three concert seasons. The music and the energy that surfaced made it clear that a large-scale endeavour was warranted. “My feeling is you become a servant of the music. It’s like you have a child or a baby and you do whatever is required,” Brown says. A small orchestra and choir of less than 30 members in total presented parts one and two at All Saints’ By-the-Sea for an Epiphany concert on Jan. 6, 2006. They returned the following year for parts three and four, and the next year moved to the bigger theatre at ArtSpring for the final two cantatas. As word grew over time, this January show became a reason for islanders to come back from holidays, stay at home, or stick around for a later flight. In 2008, Brown’s dream was fully realized with a presentation of the complete work. “The Christmas Oratorio is all about celebrating; its music is lively and engaging, warm and welcoming,” wrote George Ehring, in one of three articles he created for the 2008 epic event.
While tackling ever more difficult repertoire and unfamiliar territory for a vocalist, Brown found enthusiastic and generous help for her work. This came from established professional musicians like Jean Knight, Dawn Hage, and Scott Andrews, and upcoming stars like violinists Zavallennahh Huscroft and Adrian Dolan and singers Isaiah Bell and Angus Bell. “Though she was coming from a folk scene, Zav had vast connections to young musicians who had gone through school and had degrees who were thrilled to come and play Bach,” Brown says. Brown discovered bass baritone singer Angus Bell while ordering scores at Long & McQuade. The accomplished soloist was happy to join the group with only ferry fare as compensation. Brown recalls others without whom the project would not have come to fruition, such as tenor Benjamin Butterfield, choral conductors Leonard Ratzlaff, Frieder Bernius, and Jon Washburn, and ArtSpring’s Executive Director Paul Gravett. Brown is thankful for local musicians Shirley Bunyan and Linda Quinn who stood by her every step of the way in fulfilling her vision.
The Stubbs came into the picture when they moved to Salt Spring in 2007 after retiring from their professional careers in New York. Jim Stubbs was hoping to maintain a low profile as a member of the choir for January 2008’s oratorio when disaster took out lead trumpet player Dawn Hage and Brown called upon Stubbs on the afternoon of the show to step in on lead trumpet. Stubbs had been principal trumpet with the American Ballet Theatre, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the American Composers Orchestra, the Joffrey Ballet, the Opera Orchestra of New York and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as being an associate member of the Met Opera for 25 years.
In November 2008, Brown asked Stubbs to take over her role as music director. “Full credit must be given to Jim for carrying on Bach on the Rock” says Brown. “It’s due to him and to his wife Laurie that Bach on the Rock continued to have life. They brought a great deal of generosity to it all.”
In the process of fulfilling her dream to present the oratorio, Brown provided a venue for serious classical productions embracing multiple composers and styles. Stubbs further broadened the profile of the group with ambitious works like Mendelssohn’s Elijah oratorio and Handel’s Messiah, along with lighter-hearted evenings like waltz and tango nights at Fulford Hall. Maestro Stubbs retired from his position as Music Director in 2015 to pursue his first passion - performing new music. The members of Bach on the Rock miss him and Laurie, who anchored the bottom end with her accomplished bassoon playing, provided skilled piano accompaniment at choir rehearsals, and worked tirelessly behind the scenes in support of the organization.
In 2016 Michael Jarvis became the Artistic Director of Bach on the Rock, and is continuing its dedication to community building by performing classical music with care and excellence for the local Salt Spring audience. BOTR is committed to including works by J.S. Bach in its programming; it carries on the tradition of presenting Handel’s Messiah every year; and is adding new traditions such as an annual Gilbert & Sullivan concert at the close of the year.
(part of the above reproduced, with permission from Elizabeth Nolan, Bach on the Rock's 10-year journey. The Gulf Islands Driftwood December 24, 2014)