With the Kalamazoo Bach Festival getting a new name and a new focus, it’s clear there’s no going Bach for the organization.
After nearly three-quarters of a century since its founding, the group announced last month that it was changing its name to Kalamazoo Choral Arts and focusing more on vocal music.
The Bach Fest was founded in 1946 as a community effort to honor the choral and instrumental works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Over the years, it grew to include events throughout the year, including organ crawls, choral festivals and the Bach Legacy Lecture, all of which focused on the works of Bach and his contemporaries. In recent years, however, the Bach Fest purposely expanded its repertoire, shifting from instrumental music to primarily choral music and featuring works by other composers such as Beethoven and Brahms. This year’s Love Is concert even included a commissioned piece by composer David O.
And as the focus of the organization changed, the need to rebrand became clear, according to Music Director Christopher Ludwa.
“We’ve decided that it is time to move in a different direction and make sure that the name that we’re presenting reflects what we do as an organization,” says Ludwa. “(Bach Festival) doesn’t really reflect the breadth of repertoire and the inclusivity that I think we really embrace as an organization.”
Examples of inclusivity efforts by the Bach Festival include recent programs that featured works by “living composers, women and BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) composers,” says Ludwa. The festival has also sung well-known pieces such as Hadyn’s Creation in Spanish.
“We have expanded our repertoire, been more inclusive and expanded our diversity with who we represent in the music world,” says Cori Somers, the organization’s executive director. “Kalamazoo is a really progressive town, so we felt like doing anything less than a full name change was paying lip service to the idea of inclusivity instead of fully embracing it. The direction we are going in is opportunities in the community that are more vocal-arts-focused.”
Since the organization has changed its repertoire significantly over the past few decades, the name Bach Festival doesn’t truly summarize what is at the heart of the program, says Ludwa.
“Our name feels exclusive, so this is a way to take away barriers for community involvement,” he says. “Younger people don’t even know who Bach is, which is sad but also represents the privilege of that musical education. Kalamazoo Choral Arts is a more expansive umbrella organization, and we could spin off of that when the time is right.”
Ludwa likens the organization’s changes to renovating a house, wherein the foundation of the structure stays the same. In this case, the organization’s foundation in choral music will remain. What won’t continue will be its weeklong choral festival, its annual organ crawl with Bach works played on organs at area churches, and its sponsorship of the Stulberg International String Competition’s $1,000 Bach Prize, which is awarded to the semifinalist, among 12, who gives the best solo Bach performance.
Since the former Bach Festival is “moving towards being a choral-centric organization” and “the Stulberg is strictly for string players, it doesn’t make sense to support them in that way,” says Somers.
Kalamazoo Choral Arts will still collaborate with other local music organizations as it does with the Kalamazoo College Singers, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra and the First Congregational Church Chorus to provide its annual Love Is concert.
In the future, Ludwa says, Kalamazoo Choral Arts plans to put an emphasis on living composers that aren’t necessarily white or “male-identifying.”
“Curation of newer composers is an intentional process,” he says. “While Haydn and Brahms will remain timeless, the Kalamazoo Choral Arts should be a place for all types of singers, from Broadway to classical. I’d like to see us do more commissioning of underrepresented composers specifically.”
“We haven’t had any pushback from our supporters,” Somers says of the changes. “They recognize that if you don’t change, you die.”