Tag Archives: J.S. Bach

Confessions of a Bachophile: Wood and Wind

Michael Lawrence, director of the film Bach and Friends, brought this video to my attention.

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Confessions of a Bachophile: Adaptations

In previous posts, we’ve mentioned J.S. Bach and his practice (if not the necessity) of adapting his own works to suit the instrumentation available to him at a particular time. Bach scholars have long felt that the orchestral suites probably fall into this category, and in particular the Second and Third Suites, but for different reasons. It was felt that because of historical tunings, the Second Suite was originally in A minor as opposed to B minor of the adaptation that has come down to us. However, in A minor the solo flute line becomes uncomfortably low. Baroque oboe specialist and Juilliard School faculty member, Gonzalo Ruiz, has concluded that the solo part in A Minor, a bit clumsy for the violin, falls nicely in the oboe’s range, and is compatible with oboe fingering. Along with fellow Juilliard faculty member Monica Huggett, they recorded the four orchestral suites with original tunings and instrumentation. The recording earned them a 2010 Classical Grammy nomination for Best Small Ensemble recording with Huggett’s Ensemble Sonnerie. (Avie 2171) It is an eye-opener, not just for the solo oboe in the Second, but also for the deletion of the familiar trumpets and timpani, added by C.P.E. Bach, in the Third.

They’ve taken their ideas to fortunate audiences of late, notably with the Portland Baroque Orchestra, of which Huggett is artistic director and Ruiz the principle oboe, at the Oregon Bach Festival and earlier in May in Portland.

More on this topic soon…

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Review in Brief: “Bach and Friends”

Note: The film Bach and Friends by Michael Lawrence was released on DVD in late January.


Had Bach and Friends by documentary filmmaker Michael Lawrence been around when I was a teenager first discovering Bach, I’m not sure what impression I would have taken from it. Given the passionate statements of love from the gamut of performers seen in the film, I would have, at least, concluded that I was in very special company.

From interviews with Joshua Bell to Philip Glass, and a dozen or so others in between including Béla Fleck, Hilary Hahn, and Peter Schickele, the film paints a portrait of an effect rather a person—the abstract effect of the music of a genius on others rather than the totality of the historical genius himself. This is both good and unfortunate at the same time. Good, in that the performances on the film are absolutely stellar ones from stellar performers, but unfortunate in that the viewer is left with a very tepid and incomplete idea of who Bach actually was. The film’s emphasis on solo works and solo performers is perhaps understandable given the extremely personal nature of the individual interviewee’s responses. But, given the vast amount of Bach material and his effect on modern performances left unexplored—choral, orchestral, and ensemble—the responses come off as heartfelt and passionate, but  historically unrepresentative.

Bachophiles will obviously want to obtain and view this DVD, for no other reason than to luxuriate in the performances on the disk and on the performance-only companion disk. They will not learn anything new, but that was probably not Lawrence’s intention.

Find this DVD at Michael Lawrence’s website: http://www.mlfilms.com

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Confessions of a Bachophile, Chapter 4

Mm! how sweet the coffee tastes,

More delicious than a thousand kisses,

Mellower than muscatel wine.

Coffee, coffee I must have,

And if someone wishes to give me a treat,

Ah, then pour me out some coffee!

Lieschen’s aria, J.S. Bach, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht
“Coffee Cantata” BWV 211

Memories are curious things, indeed.

It was sometime in the late 80s. I distinctly remember trudging up Broadway amid a flurrying snowfall in the middle of winter. I can’t recall the exact destination (somewhere on the Upper West Side), but I vividly recall the exact motivation—a program of all-Bach including the secular cantatas.

I truly can’t remember whether the venue was a church or some other performance space, but I remember coming inside from that cold windy walk, cheeks burning, and thanking Zeus for the warm interior. The performing group first opened with a Bach instrumental work which I vaguely remember to be the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, then followed with the “Coffee Cantata” BWV 211 before taking an intermission.

As I got up to stretch my legs,  the aroma of freshly brewed coffee surrounded me. I thought, “How clever! Perform the ‘Coffee Cantata’ and have coffee in the lobby.” Rushing to the lobby, I saw people were milling about, heading for the restrooms, perusing programs–but there were no refreshments of any kind. I was certain I had caught a whiff of coffee, but, oddly no one else had had the same experience.

The second half of the program consisted of the “Wedding Cantata” BWV 202 followed by the “Peasant Cantata” BWV 212. By the end of the concert, though, my obsession was complete and overwhelming. All I could think about was finding the nearest coffee shop and getting a caffeine fix.

Luckily, this was the 80s. No Starbucks, yet, but there was a typical Greek coffee shop on a nearby corner. Over barely adequate coffee and pie, I pulled out a pad and furiously wrote myself a note: “Stage ‘Coffee Cantata’ and serve really good coffee. Will drive the audience nuts.”

Well, it’s now 2010, and really good coffee is much easier to find. Finding a good Coffee Cantata will be easier as well—the KSO is offering the work on an all-Baroque concert at the Bijou on March 7th. I hope they’re serving coffee, though.

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“Bach and Friends” Completed and Available

In a post last fall, I mentioned the documentary, Bach and Friends, by filmmaker Michael Lawrence. The film has been completed and is now available on DVD. The film contains commentary and performances by a vast number of artists from different musical genres on the effect Bach has had on their musical lives. Among the musicians appearing in the film are Joshua Bell, Hillary Hahn, Philip Glass, Edgar Meyer, Richard Stoltzman, Bela Fleck, and Peter Schickele, to name a few.

A second DVD in the set has complete performances including Joshua Bell’s only recorded performance of the Chaconne.

Check this blog for a review of documentary in the near future.

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Confessions of a Bachophile, Chapter 3

A recent J.S. Bach cantata performance reminded me of some reading and listening I had done maybe 10 years or so ago on Joshua Rifkin and his ideas concerning Bach choral performance. Although I had been familiar with Rifkin’s presentations from the early 80s on his controversial theory that Bach wrote most of his choral works, particularly the cantatas, for one voice to a part rather than for larger choruses, it didn’t really sink in until I heard a 1997 CD, J.S. Bach: 6 Favorite Cantatas.

Rifkin’s contention essentially boils down to this:  Bach did not have available to him the quality or quantity of choir members that has grown up around choral music since the Romantic era days. So, he wrote for, and used, four soloists for both arias and as the chorus. Needless to say, this idea provoked an incredibly forceful rebuke from mainstream choral experts who were not able to accept such heresy. And many still do not. However, since then, the rational logic of his theory, as well as additional historical research, have swayed more and more Bach experts to his side.

For my ear and eye, though, it was that 1997 CD  that stimulated  new consideration. It featured the cantatas BWV 147, 80, 140, 8, 51, and 78 with performances from Joshua Rifkin’s Bach Ensemble—originally recorded in 1985-86.  These performances followed Rifkin’s premise of one voice to a part…and what voices they are. Among the singers were the incredible Julianne Baird, soprano; Allan Fast, countertenor; Frank Kelley, tenor; and Jan Opalach, bass.  Also singing on some of the works were Jane Bryden, soprano; Drew Minter, countertenor; and Jeffrey Thomas, tenor.

Whether or not you fall into the Rifkin camp, it is undeniable that a quartet of  excellent singers can have a vocal nimbleness and a freshness that large ensembles cannot.  On this CD is possibly my favorite J.S. Bach sacred cantata, Liebster Gott, wann werd ich sterben, BWV 8.  Not only are the performances of Julianne Baird and Jan Opalach stunning, but Bach’s flute and oboe obbligato lines are simply amazing. There is a beautiful musicality and a translucent clarity to the performances that is positively addictive. It’s really hard to stop listening.

If you are unfamiliar with Rifkin’s premise, or not a believer at all in his concept, this recording could offer you some new insights into Bach. If not, you will still be overwhelmed by the musicality. The CD is still available on L’Oiseau-Lyre 455 706-2.

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REVIEW: Knoxville Choral Society, J.S. Bach and Handel’s “Messiah”

Depending on the season, it seems one can find a Messiah tucked into almost every choir loft at some time or another. But really great Messiahs are more elusive and rare.  In Saturday’s concert at the Tennessee Theatre, the Knoxville Choral Society gave us a glimpse of what a great one might sound like.

Their concert paired selections from all three parts of Handel’s Messiah with J.S. Bach’s Cantata #140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Sleepers, Wake). Although I am thankful for any Bach cantata performance, I am generally not a proponent of doing them with really large choral forces.  As in the orchestral requirements, Bach’s own choirs would have been smaller and, hence, more nimble, and able to respond more presentationally. I am even an admirer of the Joshua Rifkin theory of one singer to a part, at least as an alternative approach–but that is another story.  Having said that, director Eric Thorson drew from his large group an amazingly clear choral tone and an impeccable balance between sections, albeit a tiny bit stolid in temperament and tempo. The #4 Choral, “Zion Hears the Watchmen Singing,” was a surprising feast from the tenors and baritones. Obviously, Bach had a virtuoso oboist available for his performance, for he wrote the #6 Duet, for soprano and bass, with a substantial obbligato line for oboe—in this performance, beautifully offered up by the KSO’s Phylis Secrist.

After  intermission, KCS assistant director Bill Brewer took the podium for The Messiah, and presented a performance that was suitably emotional and rich in details. Obvious, too, were those attributes that the Knoxville Choral Society has become known for: a remarkably rich tone that is solidly balanced; and absolutely superb choral diction. Unfortunately though, the major disappointment of the evening was the soloists, chosen from the members of the society.  Most did not rise to the level of solo vocal ability that is necessary, and expected, in a professional performance. In fact, a few soloists displayed pitch and tone problems so severe that audience members around me were wincing.  However,  there were notable exceptions. Maria Rist, a soloist in the Bach, seems to possess the perfect Baroque oratorio voice—clear, vibrato-less, with wonderful diction. In the Messiah, tenor Bill Paczkowski gave beautiful readings of “Behold, and See if There Be Any Sorrow” and “But Thou Didst Not Leave his Soul in Hell.” Following those arias, came “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” expressively and beautifully sung by Gillian Westerman.

All we like sheep, following tradition, rose for the “Hallelujah,” yet almost every one of Handel’s choruses has some degree of seductive appeal. Invariably, I am smitten by “And the Glory of the Lord” as well as the final chorus “Worthy is the Lamb.” I must also mention “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” a bass aria featuring Jonathan Robinson.  The trumpet obbligato of Sarah Chumney did indeed sound, and brilliantly. With precise entrances, confident high notes, and a gorgeous, clear, crystalline brass clarity, it was, in a word, stunning.

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The Bach Project Nears Completion

If you are a fan of J.S. Bach, as I am, and haven’t heard about The Bach Project, you owe it to yourself to keep reading.

For several years, Baltimore filmmaker Michael Lawrence has been working on a documentary film centered on the perspectives of contemporary musicians, scientists, and writers on the music of Bach and its place in their musical lives.  The film, now titled Bach and Friends, is scheduled for a DVD release in January.  The film contains interviews and performances from a veritable Who’s Who of today’s music world:  Bobby McFerrin, violinist Joshua Bell, clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, the Emerson String Quartet, mandolinist Chris Thile, Béla Fleck, Philip Glass and Wendy Sutter, Peter Schickele, bassist Edgar Meyer, violinist Hillary Hahn, music critic Tim Page … and many more.

The Bach Project was originally launched at the EG’07 (Entertainment Gathering) and Bach and Friends returns to the January 2010 event to celebrate its completion.  That EG will be held in Monterey, January 21-23, 2010.

My own excitement is building for the January release of the DVD of the documentary.   Lawrence has indicated that the set will include a second “Bonus DVD” with music-only, complete performances which will run about an hour and a half.

Numerous video clips from the film have been posted on YouTube.  The latest is violinist Hillary Hahn speaking about Bach and performing the Grave from the Violin Sonata No. 2, BWV 1003.  Click here to view this clip. All of the clips are really intriguing, but check out Chris ThileEdgar Meyer, or Philip Glass/Wendy Sutter.

When the Bach and Friends DVD actually releases in January, I’ll post information here on how to obtain it.

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Review: An Age of Elegance

A concert title can mean quite a lot…or it can mean nothing.  For those who prepare and program, it exists for either the purposes of decision-making or decision-explaining.  And for an audience, it can possibly offer an abstract background on which to form their mental musical impressions.

The University of Tennessee School of Music has chosen to title this season’s Faculty Chamber Music Series Music of the Ages—a broad title under which the three concerts hang.  Sunday’s opening concert, An Age of Elegance, chose from three ages that we, with historical rose-colored glasses, like to consider elegant: the first and second halves of the 18th century and pre-revolutionary Russia.  However, as bow touches string and air rushes through brass, all that can quickly be forgotten and we can just listen.

The faculty quartet of David Northington, piano; Mark Zelmanovich, violin; Hillary Herndon, viola; and Wesley Baldwin, cello; opened the concert with the Mozart Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, K. 478.  The performance was richly entertaining in its liveliness, and the Mozart moments of assertiveness were nicely traded off.  Yet, despite the musicality of the performance, it was apparent that the four players do not regularly perform as an ensemble.  Of course, that in and of itself is not a negative, but rather a fact of chamber music and of academic life.  However a few instances of glaring violin intonation issues, and its somewhat disappointing lack of unity of tone with the excellent viola and cello, did keep the performance out of the truly superior category for this listener.

I am a big lover of the cantatas of J.S. Bach, both the sacred and secular, so the next items on the program were a welcome inclusion.  Soprano Cecily Nall and mezzo soprano Lorraine DiSimone performed two soprano/alto duets from Bach cantatas: “Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten” from Jesu, der du meine Seele (BWV 78) and “Entziehe dich eilends, mein Herze, der Welt” from Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht (BWV 124).  The two singers were delightful in both pieces.  I couldn’t help but wish, though, that Nall and DiSimone had a bit more distinctive difference in vocal tone for the soprano/alto duets.

With perhaps a wink, wink, nudge, nudge at the idea of elegance, the Brasswind Quintet, the men sporting eye-catching ties, solidly and cleanly concluded the program with a brass quintet from the Russian civil engineer and amateur cellist and composer, Victor Ewald—the Quintet No. 2.  The Brasswind Quintet consists of Cathy Leach and T.J. Perry, trumpets; Calvin Smith, horn; Daniel Cloutier, trombone; and Sande MacMorran, tuba.

The series continues in November with An Age of Revolution with works by Brahms, Shostakovich, and Messiaen.

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