Covid-19 has forced many organizations to rethink their mission and purpose, but for the Kalamazoo Bach Festival that change had been in the works for years before the pandemic even happened. When Cori Somers took the helm of the 70-year-old organization in 2015, it had been dedicated to celebrating the music of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach with three performances a year and an annual week-long festival. One of those events, a holiday concert performed by the Kalamazoo Bach Festival Chorus, had established itself as a beloved community holiday tradition. (Click here for information on this year’s concert.)
But Somers and Bach Festival Artistic Director Chris Ludwa saw an opportunity to expand the festival’s mission beyond Bach while still embracing the spirit of the prolific composer by promoting local and regional musicians.
“We looked at how we have so much in the city already happening with the Gilmore Keyboard Festival and The Fontana that both bring in national and international artists and thought, ‘How do we fit in?’” Somers says. “We have so much to offer musically in this community with our local musicians, and we thought taking the route of being more grassroots and supporting our Michigan artists was a good way to go.”
Somers has deep roots in the local music landscape — she’s an accomplished violinist who plays with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra and is a member of the local folk and rock groups Red Sea Pedestrians, the Dacia Bridges Project and the Jump Bunny String Band. (“I’ve been to all the music festivals around Michigan,” she admits.)
But if she were to sum up the direction of the Bach Festival now, she would use two words: creativity and collaboration.
How do you describe the Kalamazoo Bach Festival?
We are less a festival and turning more into a season. We’re known in the community for three large events each year and bringing in national or international chorus groups to perform. While the Bach Festival historically was an organization that only performed the music of Bach, we now want to represent who’s in our chorus and where we are today and are changing what we do based on who we are right now.
Kalamazoo College (where the festival is housed) has helped us shape that as well. K-College has shifted over the years to become a more liberal-arts-focused and progressive school, especially with having the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership on campus. A lot of us classically trained people can sit around and say things like, “Yeah, we do a lot of art history and music theory and harmony and things devoted to this awkward and amazing composer,” but he’s also an old white guy, so what are we doing that’s relevant right now?
We want to be more socially conscious. This is our strategic planning year and so we have so many things on the table, like: How do we identify who are we? What are we doing now compared to 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 years ago? How will we change and where do we want to go in the future?
How has the Bach Festival already expanded its mission?
We created the Breaking Barriers with Bach program that originally was to blend different genres of music together but has taken more of an equitable, social justice perspective as well. Our 2019 program featured Heartside Harmony Chamber Music Society, made up of diverse local artists performing works that explored the human condition. This year we had cellist Jordan Hamilton, who mixes hip-hop, soul, folk and classical music.
And we created our Love Is Love Is Love Is concert. It started out as a Valentine’s-themed concert, but we have decided to do it every year and make it a tradition like the holiday concert. We also have “Bach Rocks!” which looks at classically trained musicians who have gone in different directions with their career paths and showcases what they’re doing while engaging in a conversation about how we’re more alike than we are different with our training and our backgrounds. Just because you’re trained in classical music doesn’t mean you end up only playing classical music.
What do you like best about what you do?
My interactions with people. I feel like I’m at my best when I’m working with others on creative projects. I get really excited when we have a new concert format, such as the Cole Porter Radio Hour show we did two years ago, which Chris (Ludwa) and a friend of his — actor and singer Rob Johansen — wrote together. Rob played the lead, and the show included a jazz ensemble and a 12-piece chorus ensemble made up of Bach Festival Chorus members. And we had WMUK involved, and the Traverse City Distillery made old-time, 1920s cocktails.
I love it when we can collaborate with other organizations in town. One of my most favorite things is to make connections with other groups and other organizations and other musicians and come together and start creating something that’s bigger than just one organization.
Who has influenced you?
Dacia Bridges. She had a huge, huge influence on me the last few years. She was such a huge personality and had achieved so much as a popular musician in Europe. I don’t even know how she survived coming back here because her life just flipped upside down here. But I saw how she coped with that huge life change, and she taught me so much about staying focused on what you do things for and to keep trying your best all the time, whether there’s five people at the concert or 5,000 people.
— Interview by Marie Lee and edited for length and clarity