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Helen and Richard Westerfield are collaborating on a new musical performance that will take an exploratory approach to some of Johann Sebastian Bach’s compositions at the Village Church in Rancho Santa Fe.
Helen and Richard Westerfield are collaborating on a new musical performance that will take an exploratory approach to some of Johann Sebastian Bach’s compositions at the Village Church in Rancho Santa Fe.
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Couple shines new light on Bach’s music

RANCHO SANTA FE — For more than 200 years now the music of Johann Sebastian Bach has been performed in concert halls and churches worldwide.His music has been etched onto a record made of gold that is still today hurtling through interstellar space on the Voyager spacecraft in the hopes that if intelligent life does exist, and played the record, they could experience his music among other sounds and images of Earth.

Conductors Richard and Helen Westerfield are looking to bring Bach a little closer to home, allowing listeners to experience Bach in a whole new way with their inaugural concert at the Village Church April 13.

The program will be the first time they’re working together so intensely on creating a new vision to Bach’s music, Richard said, who has been a conductor of world-renowned orchestras since 1993.

Helen serves as the director of music ministries at the Village Church.

The married couple that now resides in Del Mar met each other prior to studying music abroad in Europe on Fulbright scholarships.

“We got to know each other in the hills of Bavaria,” Richard said. “It looked very much like ‘The Sound of Music,’ with lots of flowers cows…it was very much romantic. And we got engaged shortly after that. But the thing that was exciting for us is that we shared a common interest in music and especially in the music of Bach.

“And that began all the way back then, and we’ve had the idea of doing with Bach, something distinctive with Bach really, since then.”

As a piano player and composer Richard, who once filled in to conduct the New York Philharmonic on a day’s notice, said he was drawn to conducting because of the fact that it was done with other people.

“It was a teamwork, collaborative effort and that a conductor actually doesn’t make any sounds at all,” he said. “It’s all about inspiring other people to play their best, and to play in a way that’s together.”

But during this performance, Richard will get a chance to make his own “sounds,” in a sense, by providing commentaries and some brief biographical notes on Bach and his music.

“It’s an attempt to help people find a way inside the music so that they can relate to it and appreciate it more,” Richard said.

With the couple having lived with and studied Bach’s music (Helen studied Bach with conductor Helmuth Rilling, co-founder of the Oregon Bach Festival), it’s been a dream of theirs for the past 25 years to present the music in a way that connects it with the ideas that gave rise to it and the lives of people.

“I think…musicians who study this music really know its extraordinary characteristics,” Helen said. “But for those people who’ve never heard it before, we have to…coach them along, and then suddenly they’re, ‘Oh, wow,’ they get it.”

One of those extraordinary characteristics that Richard points to is Bach’s ability to seemingly play number games in his compositions. He says that Bach did that as a way to make the music as special and as perfect as he can.

“Everything he did in his life was devoted to making this music as extraordinary and as much of a praise to God in a sense,” he said.

And Richard’s own abilities with numbers, having at one time worked at J.P. Morgan in a group that helped third world developing nations gain access to financing, helps to gain insights into the music.

He explained that music and mathematics go together in the sense that both are about sequences and patterns, and a way to organizing information. But it’s so much more than the numbers, he added.

“It’s about what you feel,” he said. “Music ultimately is about something that’s beyond thinking, and it’s a way of expressing things that we can’t put into words or certainly the numbers. It’s conveying something about life that we can only get a taste of through music. Music is a window into something larger about our experience and what it is to be a human being.”

Many of Bach’s compositions were created while he was a civic employee in Leipzig, Germany, where he oversaw a school and prepared music for church services. And it’s from some of those works that will be performed in the concert.

The program will include music from the Psalms, which Richard said, provides many emotional themes.

“In the music there are psalmists who are saying ‘I’m so thankful and grateful,’ and there are others who are saying, ‘Help, I’m in deep trouble,’ and so you have a lot of emotion,” Richard said.

“This music is not a kind of studied or intellectual approach to religion or theology, it’s a very emotional and real and honest look at all the ways we are,” he added.

Bach, who certainly wasn’t famous, but relevant during his life, Richard said, is still just as relevant today, and is widely regarded as the greatest composer ever.

“You sense this extraordinary genius, this ability to come up with music that goes straight to the heart,” he said. “And across all his music, there’s just an unbelievable level of consistency. It’s not like there are three or four or five or 10 or 30 works of genius and 300 that aren’t. The level of genius is just unbelievable and you look at his life and how little time he had to write all this music, it’s almost unthinkable.”

When: April 13, 7 p.m.

Where: Village Church in Rancho Santa Fe, 6225 Paseo Delicias.

Tickets: $25 to $50; $10 for students. or call (800) 838-3006