Down our way, lovers of culture and intellect tend to think that the universe begins somewhere "up the road."

Living as we do in a sort of rural cul-de-sac, we learn to savor our ritual trips to the Kennedy Center. We dream, deliciously, of long pilgrimages to New York.

This year, however, the universe has shifted homeward. Thanks to St. Mary's College of Maryland, we outlanders get to sit in on a distinctive celebration of Johann Sebastian Bach's 300th birthday.

Music professors Michael Phelps and Larry Vote, who began planning the Bach celebration two years ago, still marvel at the improbability of small, remote, St. Mary's steeping itself so thoroughly in the world of the "one great master," as Claude Debussy called Bach.

"As far as I can tell, nobody's hit the breadth of our observance," said Phelps, a frequent performer of Bach's harpsichord and organ works.

The celebration includes a lecture series, which began last week and will continue through April 23. Supported by a grant from the Maryland Commission for the Humanities, the series uses Bach as a point of departure for exploring the 18th century and the Enlightenment.

The free lectures, given by St. Mary's College professors, embrace the world in which Bach lived: its literature and mathematics, religion and acoustic theory, politics and metaphysics.

Concerts will include every major medium in which Bach composed. On Sunday, Peter Marshall of Catholic University will give an organ recital at Trinity Episcopal Church, near the St. Mary's campus.

On March 7, the college will host a concert of orchestral works played by the Wondrous Machine, a Washington-based ensemble that plays on reproductions of 17th and 18th century instruments. In April, the Wondrous Machine will return to join college musicians and the college's choir for three performances of Bach's monumental B minor Mass, conducted by Vote.

There will also be two performances to help defray costs -- one at Trinity Church on April 27, the second at Redeemer Episcopal Church in Baltimore on April 28, and an open performance on April 29 in Lexington Park, at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Meanwhile, the college will have staged a number of other student and faculty performances, along with the "J.S. Bach Birthday Tribute Dinner," where the musical giant will be "toasted and roasted."

Isolation, small size, limited resources are put to advantage during the Bach festival because they foster our best social virtue -- neighborliness. And this allows for a communal involvement with culture that I suspect is often lacking "up the road."

Thus, for example, the musicians of the Wondrous Machine will stay in the homes of Trinity Church parishioners, and the soloists of Ars Musica, lodging in the college's guest house, can expect to be treated to one of the extravagant potluck suppers of the Arts and Letters faculty.

Similarly, while a small college may have to struggle with the immense difficulties of a work like the B minor Mass, those very struggles can bind the performers more profoundly to the music. This is especially true at St. Mary's, whose music program has earned a statewide reputation for rigor and high quality.

"The B minor Mass is one of a handful of great odes to the universe, works that fall out of their time and place," says Vote. "It's virtuosic writing; there are no wasted notes. And it's a very, very challenging piece. Bach really didn't write harder music for his solo music than he did for his choir.

"This is the kind of work that a big university would do in one semester," Vote said, "whereas, we've been rehearsing since school began in September. But you can't really digest this piece in one semester. The learning experience of working on a masterpiece over a year's time is so much greater."

I was able to grasp something of Vote's meaning when I sat in on two rehearsals recently. He led the choir through a series of intricate dissections, slowing the tempo, isolating particular voices, and stopping to insist upon nuances of accent, rhythm and dynamics.

"The variety of invention," Phelps told me, trying to describe the pleasures of playing Bach, "the complexities, the man's ideas were just so astonishingly clever; the vibrancy of the music; it's always alive."

And for a moment at rehearsal I was engulfed in that aliveness. Wonderful to tell, the engulfing universe originated here in St. Mary's, a good ways down the road.