RIGA - 2006 may be Mozart's year 's Jan. 27 marked his 250th birthday 's but, beginning on Feb. 8, Riga's Old Town will spend two months celebrating his more subtle and structured German predecessor, Johann Sebastian Bach.
"Bach is like medicine, vitamins," says Aina Kalnciema, a professor at the Latvian Academy of Music.
The International Bach Music Festival, which she began in 2001, is her baby. "His music goes so deep and leaves souls harmonized."
Like Tchaikovsky with "The Nutcracker," Bach's music is most often played during the Christmas season, when "St. Matthew's Passion" becomes part of the outdoor soundtrack. Kalnciema wanted to celebrate his music at other times of the year.
The festival will stage a series of concerts in buildings that were around during Bach's own lifetime (1685-1750), including the Blackhead House and the Reitern's House, two venues where Kalnciema asserts Bach's music was played while the great man was still alive.
Bach's music is known for adhering to a deeply controlled structure. His work fell out of fashion not long after he died. But a revival, beginning with the publication of a major biography in 1802 and a performance of "St. Matthew's Passion" by Felix Mendelssohn in 1829, helped secure him a place in the Western music canon.
The revival continued in the 20th century. With spontaneous "absolutely chaotic" figures like Rachmaninoff, Kalnciema claims, "people went too far from their own souls. They went too far and saw they must go back." She uses the metaphor of urban dwellers that champion ecology. Going back to Bach is like "coming back to nature."
Despite the strictures of Soviet occupation, Latvia's musicians were not entirely cut off from the Bach-mania of the 20th century. Bach, despite the obvious religiosity of his work (his chief sponsor was the church), was not censored by the Communists.
"Bach's music was written 300 years ago. They did not understand it. They didn't know what it was," the professor says.
Churches, with their prime acoustics and obvious emotional ties to the pieces, serve as some of the best venues to perform his work. (During communism, many churches were kept closed.) Though this year's festival will be featured at mostly secular locations, on March 3, the Spanish organist Paulino Ortez de Jocano will perform at the Dome Cathedral.
Though most of the festival's musicians will be Latvian, guests from France, the Czech Republic and Russia are also scheduled to perform. On Feb. 8, Gilles Cantagrel, a French music scholar, will unveil a previously unknown portrait of Bach at a press conference at the Hotel de Rome in Riga.
Kalnciema began her career as a pianist, but after doing some studies in Western Europe in the late 1980s, she became more and more enamored of the harpsichord. Though her festival has always taken a traditional approach to Bach, she says she is open to changes in the future. She doesn't mind hearing pianists, guitarists or modern drummers who play music that was originally intended for the organ.
Nor does she have any problems with those of the avant-garde who may set a jazz beat or a rock rhythm to Bach. Such riffs may make the music more accessible for modern-day listeners. But even she can enjoy the beats herself.
"The music of Bach is vital," Kalnciema says. "It is so strong that you can't do anything bad with it."
The 6th International Bach Music Festival
Feb. 8 to Mar. 31.
More info: www.music.lv/bachfestival/programme.htm.