Bach in Chico

Ruins of the Salvation Army store in Paradise. Photo: David Yearsley.

From Stanford University in Palo Alto, California northwest to the State University of California at Chico it’s a neat 200 miles—the kind of distance the young Bach would have covered on foot. He certainly wouldn’t have done it in a late model Subaru cadged from a friend with FastTrak for the tolls, feet-freeing cruise control, and a pretty decent sound system.  When the young Bach wasn’t using his feet at the organ, he was walking distances both long and short—a topic I’ll have to more say about next week in a review of a recent book that follows in the footsteps of his 1705 hike from Arnstadt in central Germany to Lübeck on the Baltic Set.

Bach, I like to think, preferred to make a journey himself rather than be transported as quickly as possible, though as a poor orphan and young organist committed more to self-improvement than professional advance (though the desires weren’t exclusive of one another), he didn’t have much choice. Like most young men of his lowly social station, he probably owned just one pair of shoes for organ playing and for slogging through the mud. He was a journeyman, literally and figuratively.

Of the two institutions of higher learning mentioned above—the one vastly rich and getting vastly richer every minute, the other reliant on state funds—is Chico State that does far more to stoke the Bach legacy. For nearly forty years the university has hosted a vibrant Bach Festival. It lasts but a few days, its events vigorously attended by enthusiasts, amateurs, musicians, and the generally interested. This year there were many kids in attendance, and their grandparents, too.

The Chico Bach Festival is not a huge, overly extravagant affair of passion concerts and other massed masterworks, aided and abetted (and sometimes hindered) by gaggles of scholars expounding on the intricacies of their own research and the cosmic consequences of Bach’s genius. In this edition of the festival there were three excellent concerts, though I’ll have to recuse myself from rating the last of them—an organ concert in which I was joined by Annette Richards. Programmed around Bach family duets, some erudite and some merely entertaining, we played our own solos: there were pieces by the Bach’s sons, complemented by the father’s beloved settings of some of his favorite cantata movements known as Schübler Chorales. The recital (and the festival) concluded with Annette presenting the vaulting, francophone, never-resolving-and-seemingly-endless chains of harmonies of his Pièce d’Orgue.That frenchfied title is coupled with the composer styled as the Italian Giov[anni] Sebast[iano] Bach in contemporary manuscript copies of the piece. As these polyglot title pages suggest, this Bach had cosmopolitan ambitions, indeed he produced the most internationally-minded music of the European baroque and did so without ever leaving his native Germany. He spent his life in a band of territory and towns of the German hills and forests about one hundred miles long—roughly the distance from Chico to the state capital in Sacramento. Bach made a couple of sojourns north, about as far, say, as the Oregon border. He learned these European musical languages without ever leaving home, creating things in these tongues that native speakers could never have imagined. Bach’s music spans a continent, and now a world.

Bach’s universality explodes preconceptions about parochialism. In that same spirit, the Chico Bach Festival is small town music in the best sense of the concept, admittedly an elastic one since the city’s population is nearly 90,000, three times larger than that of the commercial and university center that was Leipzig when Bach lived there for almost three decades in the first half of the eighteenth century.

This time around there were three Chico concerts. The intermezzo known as the Coffee Cantata was sponsored by a local coffeehouse, which offered the attendees their brew laced with fine cocoa, German style. Leipzig was a city full of such establishments, and so is Chico.

In a division of labor that Bach and his spouse would have recognized, indeed practiced, Dara Scholz, multi-talented wife of the festival director, sang the part of Liesgen with baritone Ryan Downey in the role of the bumbling father, Schlendrian. I missed the performance, but the reactions of attendees I spoke with were ecstatic.

Liesgen is a caffeine addict. Schlendrian forbids the wanton consumerism this addiction represents. She purports to give up the bitter bean when her father makes it a condition of him finding her a husband. But in the end Liesgen connives, unbeknownst to Schlendrian, to have her right to coffee written into the marriage contract.

The original plan had been to stage this fizzing comic entertainment done outside, just as Bach might well have done in the Leipzig coffeehouse’s summer garden where he led many musical performances. But the California spring has been wet and rainy, the Sacramento River swollen so much that our GPS-chosen route to Chico ran into much confusion because of flooding.

The almond trees were in blossom, the weeds between the mono-culture rows and the hills beyond as vibrantly green as they’ve rarely been in recent years. The camellias were out, but for the Coffee Cantata the performers and audience were inside with their cocoa-spiked coffee.

On Saturday morning there were classes for local singers, string players, and organists, and an afternoon lecture called “Bach Laughs” delivered by your correspondent, the Musical Patriot. On Saturday night Sacramento’s Sinfonia Spirtuoso—as spirited as its name suggests—was led from the harpsichord by director Lorna Peters in a program of instrumental music by Georg Philipp Telemann and his godson Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.  Supported by this buoyant and precise period instrument band, baroque flutist Cathie Apple sallied through a Telemann concerto with poise and panache, and baroque bassoonist David Wells delivered his conversational lines in a C. P. E. Bach trio with understated humor and tasteful verve. Interleaved with these instrumental works were a trio of tenor arias sung by Derek Chester. Lifted from their original context in the church service, this music of suffering and salvation took on a pastoral lightness, though there were lacerating thorns in the meadows, the pain and beauty of the wounds and worries portrayed with earnest assuredness and pathos by this talented, intelligent singer and his sympathetic accompanists.

The small modern hall was well filled, but not as packed as Chico itself. The city’s population has swelled by as much as 20,000 since the Camp Fire of last fall. We were put up in the Marriott Residence Inn on the edge of town—also an elastic concept in America since there are hardly such edges anymore, just vaguely demilitarized, deindustrialized sprawl zones.  From the Residence Inn you could easily walk a few minutes to both a Lowe’s and a Home Depot—if you dared to brave the four-plus lanes of State Highway 99 and other hazards life-threatening to pedestrians.

There was hardly room left in the Residence Inn for Bach tourists like us. The motel remains provisional home to scores of refugees from Paradise a dozen miles to the west. Long-term residents since last November’s fire walk their dogs out front in the parking lot crammed with cars. Families divided between rooms shuttle down long corridors with their funky geometric carpeting to say good night.  Eight-year-old kids really know their way around the breakfast buffet.

Late on Friday, we signed into the motel at the front desk. The receptionist had been evicted from her rental apartment because it had to be taken back by the owners, their house in Paradise having been destroyed. She had found another room in town on the internet, but the owner had several cats and she was very allergic to them.  The receptionist said she was thankful for what she had and eager to help those with nothing left.

Sunday morning before our afternoon concert we drove up the Skyway to Paradise. The road runs ruthlessly down the middle of a magnificent ridge with deep canyons on either side carved by Butte Creek to the north and the West Branch of the Feather River to the south. The Skyway represents the classic American way of interacting with the landscape: ram a four-lane road down the middle of a geological marvel.  It’s not the place to be in a motorized exodus from catastrophe.

In this wet spring all is green is on the Skyway until just past an enclave called Spanish Gardens  eight miles up the grade. Its palm trees were untouched by the blaze. Just beyond this point whole developments are gone, the carnage removed and paved over.  The Alliance Church (“Hope is Rising” proclaim the bill boards along the roadside) and the realtors haven’t given up, nor the lawyers advertising their eagerness to represent victims of the fire.  Spring’s hope is eternal—until the fires start coming this side of the vernal equinox.

Ignoring the apocalyptic message of last fall, the realtors are open for business even on the sabbath. It would be a miracle if the boom that swelled Paradise’s population in the years leading up to the fire can be conjured again.

The biggest architectural irony is that the smoke shop—Paradise Smokes—appears to have been spared. The Adventists hospital has been rebuilt.  There are a couple of cafés, the realtors offices, but otherwise all is charred debris: cars, appliances, glass, tires, houses, solitary chimneys, stoic redwoods, and carbonized pine and oak.

We encounter only a couple of other cars. As they pass I feel guilty about taking pictures: the beginnings of eco-collapse-tourism.

The devastation is astonishing, impossible to get your mind around. A camera can’t take it in.

The downtown strip brings to mind Dresden, perhaps because our concert downin Chico is to be played on an instrument based on that most beautiful baroque city’s organs, all but one of them destroyed in the firestorm of February 1945.

In Dresden it was stone from the fallen, burned-out buildings that took decades to clear. The stucco and wood went up almost immediately. In Paradise the materials are lighter, but the clean-up will be an unfathomably enormous job.

Near the center of town the Salvation Army is gone but its banner promises return. In Paradise, salvage and salvation are more than simply cognates.


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at