Hear Bach evolve at Philly’s Sejong International Music Festival

Violist and artistic director Hsin-Yun Huang loves Bach and wants to share the joy. Image courtesy of the Festival.

Philadelphia chamber music lovers who usually spend August waiting for the end of the drought should hail Hsin-Yun Huang and her Sejong International Music Festival, now in its second year. Performances are happening from Thursday, August 7 through Saturday, August 16 at the Curtis Institute. The Taiwanese violist and artistic director of the festival, who trained at Juilliard and Curtis and teaches at both, has connected 60 talented musicians ages 14-26 to renowned professionals for lessons, master classes, and concerts: Arnold Steinhardt, Misha Amory…The list won’t fit here, but they’re among the best chamber musicians anywhere.

The Sejong Festival (“Sejong” was a Korean king but the word also evokes “Renaissance”) grew from the suggestion of a Korean philanthropist whose best friend had studied with Huang. No personal “naming rights” — they just liked her philosophy: Music is the ultimate communication among people — especially chamber music. Huang says, “There is no ‘I’ in chamber music, just ‘we’ — teaching young musicians a different way of listening. And in two weeks they learn how their different cultures can work together and inspire each other.”

Worldwide inspiration

Speaking of inspiring: new for the 2014 students is “Morning Inspiration,” based on a tradition at the Menuhin School, where Huang studied at age 14.

“Everyone gathers in the morning, and a faculty member describes somebody or something that has been an inspiration.”  

This year, Huang’s inspiration is Johann Sebastian Bach. “When I was given the opportunity to dream up a festival, first I had to create the structure. Now I can create a delicious soup by putting in my favorite ingredients! If ever there was one man inspiring all musicians all our lives, it’s Bach! Jazz musicians, too! No composer would think of writing without studying Bach! Over the past 30 years, the way to perform Bach has been evolving. We are constantly challenged by his music. He is like Mount Everest — we never reach the top! But playing Bach keeps us in shape — humble — uplifted.” 

“Bach Forums” offer students three specialists, including one in Baroque Dance. Huang enthuses: “Suite-movements are dance forms, so you must know, for instance, if the upbeat is gliding or bouncing!”

Hear Bach evolve

At the heart of Bach at Sejong are the six extraordinary Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, two in each of three concerts. By getting to know these suites, says Huang, you discover how Bach evolved throughout their composition. 

The first cello evening on August 7 opens the public part of the festival with a fascinating glimpse at two performance options: Suite No. 1 played by Edward Arron on a contemporary cello, and Suite No. 5 by James Wilson on a Baroque cello. The others are Wednesday, August 13 (Clive Greensmith) and Friday, August 15 (Colin Carr).

On Monday, August 11, local favorite Meng-Chieh Liu, also a Curtis grad and on the faculty, gives a piano recital of Bach, Brahms (including a Bach-study), Albéniz, and Liszt. And each of the Faculty Showcase Concerts includes a chamber music super-masterpiece: Schubert’s Quintet in C (August 9) and Dvořák's Piano Quintet in A (August 16).

Afternoons offer a student-concert series entitled “Coffee and Bach” in honor of his “Coffee Cantata” and the coffee served after each performance, when the audience can meet the young musicians.

Curtis’s Sejong International Music Festival is running from August 7 to 16. Evening concerts are at 8pm in Field Concert Hall at Curtis, 1726 Locust Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $30; subscription options are available. The “Coffee and Bach” series is at 2:30pm in Gould Rehearsal Hall in Curtis’s Lenfest Hall, 1616 Locust Street, Philadelphia (a $50 series pass is available). For more details, click here for the full schedule, or call 215-882-9974.

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