Grace Cathedral

Grace Cathedral

Article | January 31, 2023

Spacious Grace: That Week with the Bachs

Blog|Eva Woo Slavitt

Now in this eighth year, we invite you to experience our specially selected arts programming amidst the soaring arches, majestic columns, and stained-glass windows in a new way. “That Week with the Bachs” is a new musical with the book and lyrics by William Kinsolving and music by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Mr. Kinsolving, we are honored that you have chosen to launch your musical at Grace Cathedral. Why did you choose to do it here in our sacred space?

I must quickly say that the honor is mine in that I was asked by the perspicacious people at the Ghiberti Center at the cathedral if the Bachs might be a part of the Spacious Grace Festival. Believe me, no unestablished writer of a musical chooses a venue. (S)He is walking around looking at any large space with yearning and palpable desperation, figuring out where the vital duet in the second act should be on a stage and how to light it.

When the invitation was made, I had no hesitance about working in a cathedral. My father, grandfather, great-uncle, and a couple of cousins had all been Episcopal bishops, so I knew about cathedrals. My father was hardly ever at his cathedral, traveling from parishes to missions all over his diocese most of the time. But I always sang in the cathedral choir – a lot of Bach, as a matter of fact.

I also knew Grace Cathedral well. I attended the funeral of Bishop Karl Morgan Block, and my brother, an Episcopal priest at the time, was Bishop James Pike’s legislative assistant for two years. More recently, I attended a riveting lecture by Michael Murphy of Esalen, arranged by the current Dean, Malcolm Young, as well as any number of concerts in the nave. When I learned that all the pews were removed for the Spacious Grace Festival, creating an extraordinary space just right for Bach, just right for a musical, I leaped at the offer.   

What we will see is described as an “iPad-in-hand staged presentation of a new chamber musical.” This may not be a common term for someone who is not a regular theatre attendee. Can you please describe what that is?

From the beginning, the idea was not to do a full production of “That Week with the Bachs,” which would take a theater, costumes, choreography, and a baroque orchestra. Instead, what we wanted was something of a concert version of it, very much in the style of the Paul Gregory/Charles Laughton versions of “Don Juan in Hell” and “John Brown’s Body” in the ‘50s. What should we call it?

The common term for when the actors hold scripts in a preliminary presentation is “script-in-hand.” But when I auditioned my company, most of them came in carrying iPads with scripts and music already loaded. They assured me – a curmudgeonly Luddite about such paraphernalia – that the iPad was much easier to use than a loose-leaf binder.

Then I wanted the audience to know that they’d be seeing some real action, hence: “staged”. And finally, there’s a sublime moment in the rehearsal process when actors are holding their scripts but have already gone a long way toward performance, so I chose “presentation” to describe that point in development. “Chamber”? I use the word to indicate intimacy; yes, even in the massive nave of Grace Cathedral. The audience is very much included in what goes on, as they will learn from the get-go. I also wanted to be sure that no one anticipated that this musical was going to be “a great big Broadway show.”  

After three days of auditions, you have assembled a fantastic cast with many accomplishments. Can you share any highlights about a few of the cast members that you want us to be aware of?

It’s very hard to choose between them. I think that because of luck, timing, and having a composer that they all knew more about than I did, this Spacious Grace presentation attracted a cast so far beyond a playwright’s fantasies as to make me queasy. I doubt if I’ll ever have as perfect a cast as this one in future productions. Simon Barrad was recommended as a baritone who can really act. And then I heard him sing. He’s playing four different parts! I heard about a young soprano who’d won Metropolitan Opera competitions, but what really got my attention was that to earn some extra money, Taylor See had taken on a gondola at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, serenading her passengers with operatic arias of her choice. As to Philip Skinner, I was quickly convinced that he’s the Chaliapin of our age, and why he isn’t playing every bass-baritone lead in opera around the world is beyond me. How incredibly lucky San Francisco Opera is to have him! I think when he joined the cast, I regarded it as a validation of the work that I’d get nowhere else. Then Marnie Breckinridge roared in with not only that spectacular soprano (“William, may I sing Anna Magdalena’s first song a half-step higher?”), she poured out an infectious enthusiasm that cannot be denied. 

Frederica Von Stade is one of America’s finest artists and singers and is beloved in the music world. You have her as the Narrator for this fantastic musical. How did you convince her to take this part? Which Cantata do you think Bach would have loved to have her sing — besides 140, of course?

I didn’t convince her. I took advantage of her! Flicka – as the world knows her – was told of the project by a friend of hers, Kay Sprinkel Grace, a Trustee of Grace Cathedral and the President of the Ghiberti Center. Flicka was interested enough to ask to see the material. Knowing that the musical was cast, she expressed her enthusiasm, then made the fateful statement: “I know it’s already cast, but if there’s anything I could do….” She didn’t have a chance.

After the usual preliminary persiflage, here is how our first conversation went :

“Flicka, there’s very much something you can do. We’re doing a concert version of the musical, and I must now write a Narrator’s part. If I write it for you, it’ll be one of the best parts of the show.”

“William, that would be perfect!”

“But here is my problem: If ‘Frederica von Stade’ is on the program, and you don’t sing something, the rest of us will be stoned.”

“Oh, William, I never sang much Bach during my career, and what he asks sopranos to do, I’m not sure I’d want to take that on at this point.”

“Okay, here’s the deal I offer: I’ll write you a song. If you like it, we’ll put it in. If you don’t, we’ll never mention it again. It’ll be forgotten, unmentioned.”

“Oh, William, that’s too much to ask.”

“You didn’t.”

I wrote the song, sent it out to her, and a week of sweating bullets later, she emailed me, “William, I love the song, and I’m driving my husband crazy, singing it all over the house.”

And as far as speculation about what Bach might have chosen for Ms. von Stade, if somehow he had been lucky enough to hear her sing, I can only suggest that he would have asked her to sing everything and anything he ever wrote for the female voice.

How would you encourage someone who is not as versed in classical music to come to see this musical?

I’d encourage everyone to come, knowing that I, too, am not “versed in classical music” and I wrote the thing! In fact, I don’t read music and know not what on earth an “appoggiatura” might be. I am content to leave the music to genius, starting with my collaborator, JS Bach — so easy to work with, being dead — and then to my accomplished Musical Director, Daniel Lockert, and the fantastic musicians in the cast who’ve agreed to join me in getting the musical on. What I promise is a good story, a view into a family struggling against the terrible odds of the times in which they lived. A unique family? Yes, but more importantly, a very human one, and as such, one that takes no special musical background to recognize, suffer with, and enjoy.  

Do you intend to perform this musical in other cities after San Francisco? If so, please let us know.

Oh, I will most assuredly let you know!! Your question must be directed from your lips to God’s ear! Grace Cathedral, in its amazing cultural flowering through the Ghiberti Center, allows this first great step in the progress of “That Week with the Bachs.” Our long march begins! Esperance!

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