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Party Like It's 1799 At Vancouver's Bach Festival

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The 18th century was a dangerous time to dance.

I learned this along with other invaluable life lessons, at Early Music Vancouver's inaugural Bach Festival, now in its final glorious week.


During a special workshop on Baroque dance taught by Montreal based Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière, I discovered that couples would each kiss the ring on their own hand, before offering it to their partner, as a sign of good faith. In the 18th century, it seems, poison was a popular means of doing in one's rival so one had to minuet with care.

Still, in spite of the skullduggery of the era, it was a time when key players had to know how to gavotte or face dire embarrassment. This was somehow comforting knowledge in a fortnight where the decidedly unsubtle Hilary vs. Trump Punch and Judy show played itself out on prime time.

Indeed the Vancouver Bach Festival proved a balm for the soul, and a Baroque escape from the poisonous politics of our televisual age.

During the stellar opening performance of the Goldberg Variations infused with jazz improvisation by Brooklyn based wunderkind Dan Tepfer, I wondered if America could actually be great again. After Tepfer's performance the next night as part of a jazz trio, where he took the great American songbook and played it into the stratosphere before effortlessly bringing it down to earth again, I was assured that it could, in spite of Trump's bluster and Hilary's hawkishness.


The performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor came at just the right moment. It's moving call for dona nobis pacem (bring us peace) calming the heart in the midst of explosions and double talk, despair and dangerous demagoguery.


Shortly before Trump called for Clinton's assassination, and Hilary's good friend Henry Kissinger (who I could easily imagine employing a poison ring) was revealed via declassified documents to have been an enabler of mass killings by the Argentine military junta, I took in a very civilized evening of cantatas and harpsichord at Christ Church Cathedral.

Before long I stopped watching the news altogether, and felt much better for it. My evenings were spent taking in delightful music, and the festival became not unlike an 18th century moveable salon, with venues all over town offering sweet relief from 21st century realities.

While the 18th century was far from ideal on many levels- slavery was booming, riots common and revolutions looming - and Bach himself became embroiled in local Leipzig intrigue, the scale and mass of 21st century media saturated awfulness makes it seem almost quaint.


I cannot imagine Hilary and Donald dancing a minuet together -- kissing their own rings first of course- before dueling it out on the dance floor as some instructor from the French court looks on - but I'd like to. It would be a refreshing change from enduring rants from their supporters and the endless news cycle of their images as if they were the only two people in a half-world of televisual demigods and demagogues, of faux feminists and friends of war criminals, that we are force fed ad nauseam.


The virtue of Bach's music is its rigorous blend of intellect and emotion -- one that touches our very humanity in tumultuous times -- and for this I am most grateful to the festival.

There are still a few more opportunities to saturate one's soul with 18th century elan -- check out Friday's Orchestral Suites for a Young Prince with Monica Huggett and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra.

After that, Vancouverites will have to return to more 21st century realities. But I for one will feel heartened as the final powerful strains of Bach's Mass in B Minor sustain me through another week of bloodshed and political posturing. And I will remember a time when grace still counted for something.


(photo credits Jan Gates)