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Joshua Rifkin, Onetime Early-Music Rebel, Looks Bach

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Musician, conductor, and scholar Joshua Rifkin has had an impact. As a young man in the 1960s he studied with Milton Babbitt and Karlheinz Stockhausen, recorded with the Even Dozen Jug Band, and created the orchestral arrangements for the classic Judy Collins album "Wildflowers." In the early 1970s Rifkin spurred a resurgence of interest in the music of Scott Joplin by making three albums of Joplin's piano music, released to great acclaim on the Nonesuch label.

Clearly Joshua Rifkin has diverse interests, but he has also had a consistent focus: the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Rifkin founded the Bach Ensemble in 1978, and the group is still going strong. This August 8-11, the Bach Ensemble will perform at Bach:Sommer, a festival in Arnstadt, Germany, where Rifkin is artistic director. Arnstadt is "right in the heart of Bach country," said Rifkin in a conversation which airs Sunday at 9 pm on the early music show Old School. Rifkin added that "Arnstadt is where several of (Bach's) relatives lived, and where he himself had his first real job, as an organist at one of the churches there."

The Bach Ensemble performs on period instruments, in period style. In his efforts to perform Bach's music authentically, Rifkin has even caused controversy. In 1981 there was an uproar at a conference where Rifkin presented his thesis that Bach's vocal music was originally performed by only one singer per part. This is how the Bach Ensemble performs the cantatas, and even Bach's larger works, such as the B Minor Mass.

Rifkin based his thesis on examination of the original scores used by Bach's singers, as he explains. This once-controversial research is now widely accepted. "I had really no idea why it should cause such upset, as it apparently did, and still does among some people... [But] in the U. K., for example, it's now basically the standard way to do Bach. Germany is resistant. The U.S. is mixed. But it's not quite the whole world against me, as it once was."

For Rifkin, playing Bach the right way on the right instruments is clearly important. And he points out that performing Bach's music in the landscape, buildings, and town where Bach lived, adds a still another dimension. "There is this intangible other thing," Rifkin said. "There is something [in Arnstadt] that you feel, that you sense. You can't put a finger on it; it may sound New Age-ish to talk about it, but it's really there. When the Ensemble and I walked into the church for the first time, they looked around, sat down, played a note or two, and then just turned around and smiled - they were at home."

"The landscape is surprisingly gorgeous," he added. It's very lush. It's rich. It's rolling hills and fields, it's very sensuous. This is a landscape that Bach knew. It gives you a different sense of what the music's about."

Below: Rifkin leads the Bach Ensemble in Bach's Cantata BWV 99 (Audio only)