By Claire Harlin
One of the most influential music icons of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach, wrote many of his compositions in the 1700s as a hardworking civic employee of the church, arranging musical education for local schools, providing music for ceremonies and organizing ensembles for town events.
“It inspires me all the time to look at him and his music,” said Helen Westerfield, who, as the Director of Music Ministries at the Village Presbyterian Church in Rancho Santa Fe, has a job that’s somewhat of a modern version of Bach’s early role. “To be on a weekly schedule, every Sunday comes up pretty quickly, and when I am conducting various choirs I’m amazed at how he was conducting these wonderful cantatas week after week.”
Helen’s husband, Rick, added, “The work he created, week after week, was genius — consistent genius.”
And those cantatas, both secular and not, will be the centerpiece of a performance that Helen Westerfield is helping to bring to the church on Saturday, April 13, one that brings together baroque musicians and professional vocalists from across the country and is led none other than her husband, Rick Westerfield.
Rick is the artistic director and conductor for the Pacific Bach Project, which he has been envisioning since he visited Germany 30 years ago. He and Helen met there, where Rick would frequently take 36-hour trips from Romania (where he was studying) to meet and learn about Bach history with Helen at her university in France. That’s where the couple’s common love for Bach began, and now it has come full circle in being the basis for a traveling performance that will open in Newport Beach after it leaves Rancho Santa Fe.
“The Pacific Bach Project is a baroque orchestra and choir whose 44 musicians hail from some of the finest period ensembles in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Washington DC.,” Rick said. “Our goal is to enrich the musical life of Southern California through stylistically- informed period instrument performances of this greatest of all western music.
“But we don’t stop there. Bach Project events will also feature insightful real-time commentary that takes listeners beyond the ordinary concert experience by exploring connections between music and thought in Bach’s music — the space where art and ideas, beauty and meaning, what we feel and what we think all intersect and connect. We believe Bach’s music only becomes richer and more meaningful the more it’s understood contextually, in light of the ideas that gave rise to it and the soil that nurtured it and makes sense of it.”
Rick said he is particularly privileged to be able to interpret and revisit the work of his favorite composer today — a composer who, as Rick will remind you, created works that were so honored that they were proudly sent into space by N.A.S.A. as a representation of Earth’s culture.
But Rick said the task is also a huge responsibility, as Bach deserves there to be dedication and thought put into the performance.
“Understanding not only what it says on the page, and it says very little, you have to understand about his world,” Rick said. “There are so many things that go into the job of a conductor — investigative work, how was it played, how can I serve what this man would have wanted to hear if he walked in the room today.”
While the project has been in the works for decades, the Westerfields’ kids recently left the nest and the two parents were therefore looking for a new musical endeavor. That’s what gave rise to the Pacific Bach Project, which is in its first year.
“We spent our lives in music, and are all around music, so we see people group together the early composers,” said Rick. “But it’s hard to describe the degree to which Bach is different — he stands so far above everyone else.”
The Westerfields bring extensive experience to the project. Rick Westerfield has been praised as “a sure handed and enlightened leader” (Los Angeles Times) of performances that are “authoritative and impassioned, yet impressively controlled” (New York Times). Rick has led many of North America’s leading symphony orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Montreal Symphony, and the orchestras of Houston, Denver, Baltimore, Indianapolis and Phoenix, as well as many others in Europe and Asia. A protege of Leonard Bernstein as a Tanglewood Fellow, Rick has been seen and heard on NPR, Charlie Rose, and ABC’s 20/20.
Chorus master Helen Westerfield studied at the Musikhochschule in Frankfurt under Bach conductor Helmuth Rilling, touring throughout Europe, Israel and Japan with his professional choir. Trained in piano and violin as well as conducting, she is a graduate of Wheaton College and a former Bienen Fellow at Northwestern. Helen has held music ministry positions with National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC and Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City; has taught choral music at Dartmouth, Exeter Academy and Episcopal High School; and is active as both conductor and pianist with numerous professional ensembles, most recently Washington’s National Chamber Players.
For tickets to the April 13 event at 7 p.m. at the Village Church, which cost $25-$50, or $10 for students, visit Pacificbach.com or call (800) 838-3006. The Village Church is located at 6225 Paseo Delicias, Rancho Santa Fe, 92067.