It seems utterly puzzling that most of the greatest music of Johann Sebastian Bach barely makes it way to the concert hall. This conundrum was at the core of Simon Wainrib’s musical and entrepreneurial passion. His passing on March 10, 2013 gave me an opportunity to reminisce about fulfilling one’s musical dreams, and my own long involvement with the Berkshire Bach Society.
I remember attending the first of a series of lectures on Bach’s cantatas that Simon presented at the Albert Schweitzer Center in the year preceding his launching the Berkshire Bach Society. I was in my late thirties at that time, and had spent most of my adult life studying these vocal works. Knowing most of them, almost by heart, was a feat of which I was especially proud. When I first met Simon, I felt so blessed to have found a kindred spirit who had consumed these works as I had, and knew each by their BWV number, and could hum the main motives of each aria and chorus. The conversations Simon and I would have about our favorites would later be likened to a comedy skit in which two comedians (perhaps, I think, Smith and Dale as portrayed in The Sunshine Boys) would howl and laugh just by making the mere numeric reference to a joke from a numbered repertory of gags (“What about 4?, wasn’t that great?” “Nah!, 4, that’s nothing; now a really great one is 106!”). Simon, like my father, had been an executive in the garment district, but, unlike my father, had cultivated this great love of Bach’s vocal works. Although Simon and I were at loggerheads sometimes, it didn’t take long for me to bond with him and share his dream of cultivating a local musical group that might mount the herculean task of performing all of these cantatas—over two hundred works—in our beloved Berkshires. There were many groups that had attempted this project in many countries, but, ultimately failed far short of completion. It was an honor to be a charter member of the Society, and I volunteered to provide program notes and some cantata translations. It was Simon, though, who through sheer will, effervescence, and real street smarts, charmed a cadre of professional and amateur musicians and singers to launch our first concert. If memory serves me, I think it was was a pairing of cantatas 161 and 106. Bolstered by this early success, Simon attracted noted professionals offering a season of rarely heard masterpieces. The key to his success would be finding a choral director who could inspire amateur singers, be patient and nurturing, yet maintain the highest technical standards. Acquiring Penna Rose, an accomplished organist and conductor from New Jersey, who was a weekend Berkshire resident, was an extraordinary stroke of luck for Simon and our Society. Over the years, dozens of cantatas were performed; a traditional New Years Brandenburg Concerti concert, originally to benefit Camphill Village, featuring harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper became an indispensable recurring event; finally, a significant sampling of Bach’s organ repertory was performed with the likes of Joan Lippincott and Peter Sykes. The climax of the Society’s work, for many of us, was the performance of the B-Minor Mass at Ozawa Hall. How far Simon had driven us! It was almost impossible to reach that pinnacle again since the technical demands of these choral works require a commitment hard to find in an amateur part-time group. Penna Rose, whose charismatic leadership guided the singers through almost impossible hurdles, was key to the Society’s success during the first five years. As well, no one wanted to disappoint the ever indefatigable Simon who hovered about knowing when to cajole and praise and when to adopt a more realistic “plan b.” Was it all for Penna or Simon that the chorus shined? I think not. Every singer knew that these cantatas embodied the greatest in what music can express, and being successful in realizing these works, so honorable as a musical mission, was an artistic achievement of a lifetime.
Simon raised the musical bar in the Berkshires. Challenging performers and audiences with unfamiliar and difficult music is not necessarily best for an organization’s ledger sheet. But, it seemed to me, the halls were always filled, audiences and critics were charmed, and the musical distinction of his beloved Society remained unequaled in its initiative in the region.
In 2013, several noted conductors have succeeded in performing the complete cantatas. There are even new Bach Societies that flourish abroad that concentrate exclusively on this repertory. (Those who seek the mystery and ethereal of these masterpieces should visit the site of the admirable Swiss initiative, the J. S. Bach Stiftung in Trogen, Appenzell.) Audiences have become more sophisticated and discerning. Perhaps, in the near future, the time might be right to re-examine Simon’s dream.