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Spotlight: Bach Festival Society embraces diverse music and artists

Dr. John Sinclair conducts at a reason performance of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park
Bach Festival of Winter Park
Dr. John Sinclair conducts at a reason performance of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park

The Bach Festival Society of Winter Park is in its 88th year of bringing classical choral, chamber, and orchestral music to Central Florida.

But there’s something you should know about the organization with Bach in its name – it’s not all Bach.

In fact, Artistic Director and conductor Dr. John Sinclair includes diversity and inclusion in his goals for his 33rd year with the company, and beyond.

He tells WMFE's Nicole Darden Creston that you can hear it in the two different performances scheduled this month.

Dr. John Sinclair:
It is a whole evening of African American spirituals. I have loved spirituals, for as long as I've been in the business. My rationale for loving them so much is because I don't know a genre of music that is more compelling, more passionate, more real. And to have an evening where I get to hear and conduct and be a part of all spirituals in the evening....I'm trying to look here at the number, but I think there's darn near 20 spirituals that night. We have a guest artist from New York City, Samuel McKelton. He's a tenor and a fabulous interpreter of spirituals and so very knowledgeable. And so it ought to be really a wonderful night, we'll have the chamber choir from the Bach Festival, some Rollins choir people singing as well. And then this great guest artist, a fabulous night of spirituals.

Nicole Darden Creston:
Excellent. So are there some that are your favorites?

Dr. John Sinclair:
Well, one keeps striking out to me. I almost named the program The Spiritual and gave a subheading. And the subheading I wanted to give was...well, I was working with two subheadings: Every Time I Feel the Spirit. And the other one was, We Walk through the Valley of Peace.

Nicole Darden Creston:
And you also have performances with "peace" in the title coming up. Is that right?

Dr. John Sinclair:
Yes, I do. You know, it's funny how, when I program, I'm thinking very carefully about what I put up musically, but it tends to relate to how I am feeling or what I'm thinking. And right now, there's such a need for peace. And so I have a whole program called the Pursuit of Peace. And it is going to be a powerful program. It will start with a word called The Armed Man, a masterpiece by a man named Sir Carl Jenkins, a British composer. And it was written for the victims of Kosovo. And what makes it so interesting, it goes back and forth between secular and sacred texts. It has references to Judaism, to Christianity, and it has right in the very beginning an Islamic prayer sung by an imam. So it truly goes across the spectrum and basically says that we're all people that need and want peace. And it sets the whole standard for the evening. And it's very powerful. I just can't say enough great things about that piece of music. It's one that's been on my bucket list since I first heard it, and I heard it the year it came out. And then also on the program, some other favorites - we're doing a piece by a young composer on social justice. And I think that will be very important work, as well as a piece by John Rutter. We're also showing our care and concern by doing a piece called The Ukrainian Prayer. It's a Ukrainian piece of music about praying for Ukraine. And [the show] ends with a new arrangement of John Lennon's Imagine. So it truly takes you on a journey of talking about peace from many angles, and many perspectives. And frankly, subjects that I think we all should be talking about.

Nicole Darden Creston:
Indeed. I'm hearing mention of diverse pieces and diverse artists...is that something that is consciously on your mind right now?

Dr. John Sinclair:
It is very much on my mind. We have to do, because of who we are, and we love to do, the great masterworks. But we also have an obligation of being in this world and being in this time that we're living in, to be socially responsible. And so we are always programming pieces such as this. For example, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, we did a piece that was written for that very occasion at the time. And when they opened up the lynching museum in the south [The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL], we did a piece And They Lynched Him on a Tree by an African American composer [William Grant Still]. The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed we sang last year with Bethune Cookman. We feel an obligation. And then this year, we we did a whole program of underrepresented composers who just happened to be women, and I think would have been really famous in their day, if they had not been women. They didn't get the due that they deserved. And so I have this, it almost feels like a calling, to use this position for good. And so yes, there's huge amount of diversity in the program, of course in the spirituals, and there's diversity not only in the people, but in the music we're representing in the Pursuit of Peace, approaching it from multiple disciplines, multiple states, multiple perspectives.

Nicole Darden Creston:
It sounds very powerful.

Dr. John Sinclair:
Oh, it is powerful. I'm moved by it every time I hear it.

Nicole Darden Creston:
I think that means that you're doing something right. Dr. Sinclair.

Dr. John Sinclair:
I don't know. It does mean that I'm a really fortunate man, to get to make music for a living, and even more fortunate to be able to use our music for what we would perceive as standing up for the right things.

Nicole Darden Creston:
Dr. John Sinclair, thank you so much for your time today.

Dr. John Sinclair:
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Nicole came to Central Florida to attend Rollins College and started working for Orlando’s ABC News Radio affiliate shortly after graduation. She joined WMFE in 2010. As a field reporter, news anchor and radio show host in the City Beautiful, she has covered everything from local arts to national elections, from extraordinary hurricanes to historic space flights, from the people and procedures of Florida’s justice system to the changing face of the state’s economy.
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