My Journey with Bach

By John Abberger, oboe

I have always been fascinated with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. With music loving parents, I probably heard his music as a small child. I remember the moment when I became absolutely captivated by one of his compositions as a youth. How does he do it? How does his music reach so deep inside us, and how does it have such an uncanny ability to express so profoundly what it is to be human? Performing Bach’s music has been a touchstone of my career as a musician. It’s almost as if I set out on a journey (without realizing it as such) to try to understand Bach’s music deeply, and to communicate this understanding to an audience by performing these compositions to the best of my ability.

Over the course of my forty-year career I have learned that the more you give of yourself to Bach’s music the more it gives back. My love and fascination for Bach’s music led me, in my early days as a professional, to the period instrument movement and the study of historical performance practice. This was a revelation for me. Performing Bach’s music on an oboe that at least resembles one he would have recognized, and understanding in some small way the performance practices and modes of expression that were part of his musical language has vastly increased my appreciation for the expert craft with which his compositions are created.

Musicians of Toronto Bach Festival

Bach wrote a quite a lot of music, and his music is performed the world over by many fine music organizations. But an organization devoted to the performance of music by many composers from many centuries cannot perform more than a small number of his compositions with any regularity. A Bach Festival, on the other hand, exists to focus the attention of its audience only on Bach’s music. The Toronto Bach Festival takes as its mission the goal of increasing and deepening our collective understanding of Bach’s art. This includes:

  • performing all of his music, to broaden our experience of his art.
  • performing music by his predecessors to provide some understanding of the traditions within which he worked.
  • performing music by composers whose works were profoundly influenced by his music.

With each iteration of the festival I want to enrich our audience’s experience of Bach’s music. I want to show you the incredible delights of his keyboard music, in many ways Bach’s most personal music. I want to celebrate with you the joys of the instrumental music, both chamber and orchestral. And I want you to experience the wonders of his choral works, much of which you have never heard before.

As I have matured as a musician the depth of my appreciation for Bach’s music has grown considerably. I have come to understand in great detail how Bach uses the harmonic language of his time with such expressiveness. I have learned how he used the musical structures of his time so effectively. I have learned how he set the texts of his vocal works with such amazing clarity. But when all is said and done, I feel I am no closer to explaining how he does it, how he speaks to the innermost core of our being with such devastating insight. This, to me, is the essence of Art: to use the materials at hand to create something that adds up to far, far more than the sum of its parts.

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra performing The Circle of Creation with a portrait of Bach on a screen.
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra performing “J.S. Bach: The Circle of Creation.” Photo by Glenn Davidson

What was that performance that captivated me as a youth? A performance at a Bach festival in the area where I grew up, the Bach Festival of Winter Park, one of the oldest Bach festivals in North America. (In the Orlando area, Winter Park is the equivalent of North York in Toronto.)

One could say (with only a bit of hyperbole) that my experience at this performance set me on my path as a musician. I continued to study music and the oboe in high school, at university in Louisiana, and in graduate school at the Juilliard School in New York. It was only after I left school that I discovered the period oboe, and I immediately realized that the period instrument field is a direct avenue to performing lots of Bach. Immersing myself in the study of historical performance has also provided me with crucial insights into a foundational understanding of the best way to perform his music.

I feel fortunate to have ended up in Canada and Toronto where music is held in such high regard. Perhaps there will be a youth sitting in the audience at one of our concerts who will be captivated by this remarkable music as I was that day many years ago.


John Abberger is principal oboe for Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, and Artistic Director of Toronto Bach Festival. Hear John perform in the third annual Toronto Bach Festival from May 11–13, 2018. For tickets and concert information, visit torontobachfestival.org.

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