After 15 years in Peoria, I’ve witnessed multiple instances of what could be called reaching the saturation point. A big new grocery store comes to town, and several smaller ones close. A new home improvement store opens up, and one shuts down. A new Indian or Mexican restaurant appears, and one disappears. So when Martin Dicke, cantor at Trinity Lutheran Church, and I thought about starting a Peoria Bach Festival, we had to ask ourselves if Peoria could support another arts event.
We answered with a tentative "yes" because we thought we could fit our festival in the cracks, so to speak, without bumping into events that might draw the same audience. We chose the first week in June for our concerts, when little else is happening musically: Schools have let out, summer activities haven’t yet begun, and musicians have little to do but play weddings. Moreover, we thought we could find enough qualified musicians in the immediate area that we could set a reasonable budget, one that could be met with ticket sales and a few generous donors and not enter into competition with Peoria’s other worthy and much more expensive arts organizations. And we hoped there might still be people around who were hungry for Bach’s amazing music.
Last year, we set our budget low, since we had no idea how many people would come to our concerts. Some of the musicians-devoted Bach fans-agreed to play for free, and most were paid a token amount. We still had expenses, and we were hoping to break even after ticket sales. But almost twice as many people than we had expected came to the concert, and we not only met our budget, but also paid bonuses. Response from musicians was encouraging, and Peoria’s music critics wrote enthusiastic reviews. This summer, with more time to plan and to raise funds, we quintupled our budget, and we felt more confident about attracting an audience. We also knew it was important to compensate our musicians fairly.
The idea for a Bach festival grew out of a passionate love for the music of Bach, shared by both Martin and me. I participated in the legendary Helmut Rilling’s conducting master class at the Oregon Bach Festival in 1994, and I’ve often performed Bach with the Bradley Chorale, but Bach’s vocal solos are terribly difficult for students and work best with appropriate professional voices. The Oregon festival is two weeks long, with several concerts a day, and I never thought about something similar working in Peoria. But then I heard about the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival in Virginia, a successful but considerably lower cost series of events. After a visit with the festival’s founder and organizer, I began to form a vision of what could evolve in Peoria.
Martin, who’s completing his doctorate in choral conducting at University of Iowa as he works full time as cantor at Trinity, has worked extensively with Bach’s music and also wanted to see something develop in Peoria. Carol Wessler, a cellist in the Peoria Symphony and a mutual friend, brought us together. It was a perfect match: I’ve conducted Baroque music for decades and, having been part of the Peoria musical community for a long time, have been able to assemble some of the best local and regional musicians. Martin has been able to provide musical and scholarly expertise and all the resources that Trinity Church has to offer-not the least of which is a beautiful and resonant sanctuary along with centuries of Bach’s Lutheran musical tradition.
We were pleased with our three concerts and cantata presented in early June this year. We engaged excellent musicians, audiences were large and enthusiastic, we received encouraging reviews, and we came very close to meeting our budget. And with more than 150 hours of Bach’s music extant-most of it spectacular, colorful, and a joy to hear-we hope to continue the festival into the distant future. AA!