Tag Archives: Bach

Bach Festival Sets New Standard

Portland Bach Festival
St. Luke’s Cathedral
June 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

In Phillip Glass’ new autobiography ”Words Without Music, “ he makes a good case for music as a trinity in equal collaboration—composer, performer, audience —(even if the audience is also the performer.)
The second concert of the new Portland Bach Festival, Monday night at St. Lukes’s Cathedral in Portland, had all three in abundance. It also had another sine qua non— fine instruments, including an Amati cello and one of Rob Regier’s magnificent harpsichords, made in Freeport, Maine.
The Bach Sonata for Violin and Basso Continuo in E Minor, BWV 1023, played by Ariadne Daskalakis, violin, Arthur Haas, harpsichord, and Beiliang Zhu, cello, was played at a pitch used by Bach (“A”-415), slightly lower than the modern “A”-440.
The next work, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, BWV 1051, was played at the modern pitch, and all Haas had to do was push a lever on the harpsichord to switch over. Before that I was wondering if Regier, who was in the audience, would have to retune the entire instrument between numbers, or wheel in a new one.
Technicalities aside, the concert made me think I had been away from New York for too long. Nothing is perfect, or the world would come to an end. Still, the Bach Festival, like its predecessor in Bethlehem, Pa, sets a new standard.
Having the concerts in the round, like last night’s in the small rotunda at the back of the cathedral, gives them an authentic intimacy, to say nothing of improved acoustics. The final Brandenburg No. 6, played by a concertino of two violas. Nicholas Corda and Danielle Farina, with a small chamber ensemble, had exactly the right volume and tempo.
Every detail was clear, and the rapport between the musicians, who were obviously enjoying themselves, was a delight to behold. This was virtuosity as play, in a genre that is often taken much too seriously. Bach can be a joy to hear without being any less profound.
Even the pauses between movements would have fascinated John Cage. No rustling, no coughing. You could have heard a pin drop. And there was that tiny fermata after the last note, and before the standing ovation, that signifies a truly musical experience.
The contrast between the concerto and the preceding sonata, played at a lower —and very satisfying— pitch, was a stroke of programming legerdemain. The interplay of violin and cello in the sonata gave a new meaning to the form of basso continuo.
The program began with the Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007, played by Nicholas Canellakis, sounding like an entire orchestra. In spite of dramatic leaps and sudden changes in tonal color, his reading was both relaxed and melodic, setting the tone for what came after.
It was followed by the Trio Sonata from “The Musical Offering,” BWV 1079, by Renée Jolles.violin, Emi Ferguson, flute, Zhu, cello and Haas, harpsichord. I should have been listening for all the appearances and transformations of the tune Frederic the Great gave Bach to improvise upon. Instead, I was watching Emi Ferguson on the baroque flute, looking like a musician from a mosaic uncovered at Pompei.
(I’m sorry I won’t be able to attend the Bach and Beer Festival this afternoon. I hope someone has thought to brew some Bock.)

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Bach and Beer

Bach and Beer

The news that Lewis Kaplan, co-founder of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, is collaborating with Emily Isaacson, Bruce Fithian, and internationally known soloists to present a major new Bach Festival this June in Portland was welcome in itself (more on the festival and its musical content in a later column). That Isaacson is thinking of concluding the affair with a Bach and Beer party at a venue near the shore reminded me of H.L. Mencken’s story about how Bach’s Mass in B Minor saved him from death by thirst. (“Heathen Days” (1943))

Mencken and his publisher and friend, Alfred Knopf, were attending the famous Bach Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, during Prohibition, (1920-1933) and discovered to their horror that every speakeasy in town was closed due to the sighting of “agents” some days previously.

He writes: “This seemed strange and unfriendly, for it is well known to every musicologist that the divine music of old Johann Sebastian cannot be digested without the aid of its natural solvent (malt liquor).”

They barely made it through the last concert and on their way to the train discussed how soon they could get a bootlegger to meet them at a station before New York.

Their taxi driver took pity on them and drove to a warehouse-like building with the telltale sign “Sea Food” above the door.

“We rapped on the door and presently it opened about half an inch, revealing an eye and part of a mouth. The ensuing dialog was sotto voce but staccato and appassionata. The eye saw that we were famished but the mouth hesitated.

‘How do I know,’ it asked, ‘that you ain’t two of them agents?’

‘Agents!’ hissed Knopf. ‘What an idea. Can’t you see us? Take a good look at us.’

The eye looked but the mouth made no reply.

‘Can’t you tell musicians when you see them?’ I broke in. ‘Where did you ever see a Prohibition agent who looked so innocent, so moony, so dumb? We are actually fanatics. We came here to hear Bach. Is this the way Bethlehem treats its guests? We came a thousand miles, and now—‘

‘Three thousand miles,’ corrected Knopf.

‘Five thousand,’ I added, making it round numbers.

Suddenly I bethought me that the piano score of the B minor mass had been under my arm all the while. What better introduction? What more persuasive proof of our bona fides? I held up the
score and pointed to the title on the cover. The eye read:

J.S. Bach
Mass in B Minor

The eye flicked for an instant or two and then the mouth spoke. ‘Come in, gents,’ it said. As the door opened our natural momentum carried us into the bar in one leap, and there we were presently immersed in two immense Humpen….

It was a narrow escape from death in the desert, and we do not forget all these years afterward that we owed it to Johann Sebastian Bach, that highly talented and entirely respectable man, and especially to his Mass in B minor.”

I don’t know if Emily Isaacson has heard that story, but I’m sure Mencken would have approved of her idea and the plethora of micro-breweries now gracing the City by the Sea.

More on the festival soon and the Maine premiere of a newly reconstructed Bach concerto.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Rafal Blechacz at Merrill

Portland Ovations Concert
Pianist Rafał Blechacz
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 4, 2015

The playing of Gilmore Award-winning pianist Rafał Blechacz, brought to Merrill Auditorium Sunday by Portland Ovations, was characterized by clarity, precision and elegance. His program was characterized by daring.

What other pianist in this day and age would program a recital to include works that everyone in the audience had heard hundreds of times and perhaps played themselves? It is to invite comparison with Rubinstein, Horowitz and Dinu Lipatti (for the Chopin waltzes). But Blechacz showed that he could hold his own in such company, while introducing some new ideas.

A critic once said that abstract expressionists should submit a test painting to show that they could execute works in traditional style, reassuring viewers that their more characteristic work was not mere scribbling. Blechacz opened with a first movement of the Bach ”Italian” Concerto in F Major (BWV 971) that was a model of decorum in its precise rhythm, sharp delineation of melodic lines and restrained dynamics (besides being breathtakingly beautiful.)

The slow movement departed from the usual Bach renditions in its coloration and dreamy style, while the third took off in a long accelerando that, although not in the score, added significantly to the excitement of the work. Bach, not having the piano’s dynamic range on the harpsichord or clavichord, might have done exactly the same thing, as if carried away on a torrent of notes.

Innovations were even more pronounced in the following Beethoven Sonata in C minor, Op. 13 (“Pathetique”). I have a score on which my teacher has written “Sforzando very important in Beethoven!” Blechacz has that explosion of sound down pat. He also lets the notes of the chord ring out, so that what comes after seems like the coalescence of the overtones; raindrops into a flowing stream. If that requires a fermata (pause) that seems to last forever, so be it.

The famous slow movement included the central theme over a heavily accented waltz that sounds like elephants dancing, if it’s played right, and a glorious finale that, as in the Bach, had more than a hint of accelerando.

Following intermission, the program, as befits a Polish pianist, was all Chopin, beginning with the Opus 64 Waltzes, the most famous of which is the “Minute Waltz.” I didn’t have my stopwatch out, but I’m sure that Blechacz met the requirement without losing any of his grace under pressure.

The coloration and shading of that miniature, as well as the two others in the set, were exquisite. Rubinstein used to say that some, at least, were not for dancing, but Blechacz conjured up a ballroom as active and varied as any for an evening of Strauss. The late Dinu Lipatti was the acknowledged master of these effusions, but in these three at least, Blechacz is his equal.

I very much regret that I am not able to appreciate the Chopin Mazurkas as I should. If anything could overcome that deficiency, it would have been Sunday’s performance of the three in Opus 56, with their fine coloring, subtle exchange of voices and authentic rhythmical structure.

The Polonaise is another matter, especially the A-flat Major, Opus 53 (’Til the end of time…”) which, after all these years, is still enough to wake the dead, and cause instant, foot stomping standing ovations. Blechacz has the power and precision of Horowitz, with a little more finesse.

As a final act of daring, Blechacz played the Brahms Intermezzo in A Major, Opus 118, No. 2, as an encore. There is nothing showy about it. It is simply one of the most inspired works for piano ever written, and one of the most difficult to interpret. I would trade all of Wagner for it. Last summer, at a Bates College memorial service, Duncan Cumming played it as an appropriate tribute to his teacher, Frank Glazer.