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Early music, fresh start: A new leader for Washington Bach Consort

Dana Marsh conducting prior to the announcement of his move to The Washington Bach Consort. (David Betts/Metropolitan Photography)

Early music means Bach, Handel, Monteverdi. Historical performance means bringing the works of these composers to the stage. The terms are often used interchangeably, but they’re not quite the same, Dana Marsh points out. Marsh, 53, is a leader in this field — as singer, organist, conductor, academic and, as of this fall, the new artistic director of the Washington Bach Consort.

The Bach Consort is one of Washington’s semi-secret treasures. A professional ensemble of singers and instrumentalists, it has ruled alongside the Folger Consort — also founded in 1977 — as one of Washington’s leading purveyors of historical performance. It has established several performance series, toured internationally and worked its way steadily through all 215 of Bach’s cantatas, a traversal it completed in 2006 — whereupon it went back and started over again. If “historical,” at the consort, has meant Bach and his contemporaries, the “performance” part was associated with J. Reilly Lewis, the beloved conductor, organist and polymath who founded the group and led it until his sudden death in 2016.

Now, Marsh is stepping into Lewis’s shoes after a long and competitive search. “I think, if you were to meet the two of them on the street, it would be hard to imagine two more opposite men in their affect,” says Laura Choi Stuart, a soprano who frequently appears with the consort. But Marsh “impressed us favorably from the beginning. As soon as you meet him, [you sense] the incredible amount of scholarship, as well as passion for the music — two of the main things, of course, that we wanted.”

Marsh already has a job: He leads the historical performance institute at Indiana University, one of the oldest early-music conservatory programs in the country. But juggling an academic and a performing post is by no means unusual in the music world, and the trip from Indiana is not a challenging commute. As for the consort, “I’ve never been so excited about a job appointment as I am with this one. It’s something I plan to put 300 percent into,” he said.

Marsh has been steeped in music since childhood. Born to a violinist father (Peter Marsh, founder of the Lenox Quartet) and a music teacher mother, he started at 10 as a boy chorister at the prestigious St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys in New York City — with a year-long hiatus at the Salisbury Cathedral choir in England. “Eight services a week with different music at every one brings the sight-reading skills up pretty high,” he says now. It also educated him in the British choral tradition, which became a cornerstone of his later work; he began singing professionally in adult choruses and as a soloist while getting his master’s and doctoral degrees in historical musicology at Oxford. (His undergraduate degree, from Eastman, was in organ.)

In Washington, Marsh emerged in the course of a distinctive and competitive audition process: The chorus engaged its five finalists for the post to conduct the five concerts of its 2017-2018 season, each devoted to one or more of Bach’s major works. Marsh’s December concert presented four of the six cantatas of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio”; Patrick Rucker, in The Washington Post, called him “a superb choral conductor, energetic and precise.”

“It was so many different things,” says Marc Eisenberg, the executive director of the Bach Consort, on the reasons that Marsh emerged as the constituents’ clear choice. “His strength in leading a chorus, in leading an orchestra, his academic background. He’s great at a keyboard; he used to be a singer himself. He’s a scholar of historical performance. He can really do it all.”

The early-music landscape in Washington has evolved considerably since 1977, with a couple of generations of groups waxing and waning. Today, there is competition not only from the Folger Consort, but from groups such as Opera Lafayette and the Thirteen. The Bach Consort has both benefited and suffered from its late founder’s status as a big fish in Washington’s pond; beloved though it is, it has had a certain predictability. Marsh brings the promise of some gentle retooling in Lewis’s spirit — from a vantage point on the cutting edge of scholarship.

As for the distinction between “early music” and “historical performance,” Marsh feels so strongly about it that one of his first acts at IU was to change the name of his institute from the former to the latter. This discipline, he points out, is not just about studying, but also about performing the music in question. “Theory and practice have to meet,” he says. In his new job, they will.

The Washington Bach Consort opens its season Sunday with music by Bach and Handel at National Presbyterian Church.