Tag Archive: J.S. Bach

Nelson Freire at Alice Tully Hall

Nelson Freire

Readers of the Berkshire Review have read my grumblings about the standardized repertoire of the Boston Symphony concerts in the Music Shed at Tanglewood. With some miraculous exceptions, like Stéphane Denève’s Poulenc Stabat Mater this past summer, most of the programming comes from a narrow group of works which are the most securely seated in the canon. Hearing them year after year, the critic—or at least this critic—comes think of them as not the backbone of the repertory as much as its flab, its excess belly fat, as those unpleasant little ads say. (We shouldn’t forget that the predominance of this conservative programming—the concert hall as museum—is a post-war phenomenon.)

Andris Nelsons Conducts in Boston: BSO Fall Concerts Plus András Schiff Recital

Andris Nelsons conducts the BSO. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Andris Nelsons has now made his first appearance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra since being appointed its new Music Director. He will return for one concert in the spring and then assume full duties next fall. On October 17th, he was welcomed very warmly with a standing ovation, and at the end of the evening received another, well deserved one for a very effective performance of Brahms’s Third Symphony.

Boston’s Fall 2013 Round-Up

Thomas Adès and the BSO chamber players. Photo by Robert Torres.

This year will, as everyone hopes, be the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s last season without a music director — at least for another five years. Andris Nelsons has been signed up, and although he’s conducting only two BSO subscription programs this entire year, he’ll be really and officially taking charge next fall. His photo is already on the cover of the BSO program book, with the title “Music Director Designate.”

The Cantata Singers Open their 50th Season

The Cantata Singers.

The Cantata Singers, one of Boston’s most cherished musical organizations, opened its 50th season September 20th at Jordan Hall with a presentation of its very first program from all those years ago: three Bach cantatas. The audience was large, and people were issued ribbons of various colors to indicate how many years one went back with the organization. Many loyal audience members were present, former singers and musicians with the group, and people otherwise involved in its support and management. There was a feeling of love in the air.

Dancers Go ‘A-Fugeing’: The Sydney Dance Company With the Australian Chamber Orchestra (Amplified!) in ‘Project Rameau‘

If the fugue is the highest form of counterpoint it’s because it is truly an art. No one would deny that fugues do not write themselves, yet they are based on simple, sincere imitation, the first, most obvious ingredient one hears, yet the freedom of the voices is the fugue’s sina qua non. Different voices “speak” their individual melodies, and miraculously the result is not only coherent but harmonious too, and, at least under the masters, such harmonies! From one point of view the fugue is the highest composer’s art, even over-specified, yet it is a form-texture deriving from the performer’s highest art, improvisation, the fantasy. The fugue is in a way the quintessence of music, taking something which initially seems rigid and rule-bound, well, at least over-obedient, and sheds those rules completely to become free and creative, the fundamentally horizontal linear elements become nonlinear, sounding just as sensible vertically; sound, a dumb mathematical, physical process obeying laws of time and space, is refined into an art which can speak directly to something deep inside a warm human being. So the fugue, even as theoreticians have for centuries tried to define it and the rules of its creation (without much success), culminating in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Traité d’harmonie (1722), at the end of which he discusses fugues and how they are written, finally saying they cannot be reduced to general rules, except “le bon goût ou la fantasie.” J. S. Bach in turn put it most aptly of all… in his music.

Dvořák and Shostakovich with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony, Jian Wang, Cello, Plus Some Extra Cellomania

Is Dvořak, to paraphrase Dr. Leonard McCoy, really that beautiful? Really so much more beautiful than other music you’ve heard? Or is it just that it acts beautiful? If it comes down to the performance to go more than skin deep, the musicians must play very convincingly indeed. Beauty in music has proven to be diverse. For a sound to be music rather than mere sounds, however pleasing, the it needs the broadest possible aesthetic idea of beauty. An ugly sound, it has been pointed out, can be “beautiful” if used so fittingly by a composer that nothing but that sound could be desired at that point in the music. For human beings, this has included the rasping shawms and the regals, and the augmented fourth of the middle ages and renaissance, the harsh use of the usual orchestral brass by Mahler, and all the freely used ugly sounds and outbursts in 20th century music and its terrible dissonances. I would draw the line at physically painful sounds, either through loudness or shrillness or both, as ugly in a destructive way, and so incapable of beauty, even betraying the faith of the listener who trustingly opens their ears to the music, though some do seem to find pleasure in the ginormous 19th century organs played at full volume with all the stops out. Free expression in a musician or a composer can be beautiful in itself, of course, though when that expression becomes gratuitous or self-indulgent, or sentimental (which can betray a certain narrow emotional rigidity) or arbitrary (which can betray a self-imposed or self-persuaded intellectual rigidity) it can become ugly. Music in a straight jacket can be ugly too. A masterful fugue in transcending any thought of a dichotomy between these two extremes can be most beautiful of all.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra Plays Johann Sebastian Bach and His Contemporaries

Paul Dyer says he sees playing Johann Sebastian Bach as the “ultimate experience for a musician,” rightfully so, the same goes for a listener too, and in naming his orchestra after the most famous of Bach’s instrumental works, he puts his money where his mouth is, but more importantly so in the fine, detailed playing, expressiveness and unforced enthusiasm, which show much care and thought in the preparation of this program. Sydney perhaps is not and never claimed to be a great Bach town, but either way, as a lover of his music, I can feel sorely deprived of him, despite the odd performance on period instruments or otherwise over the last two years. So it felt like a parched walker coming upon a water-hole to hear a program where the whole first half was devoted to Bach and the rest to contemporary (with a small ‘c’) music. The ABO has pulled out many of the stops (within reason), assembling a larger-than-usual group of 10 violins, four violas, three cellos, one bass, two flutes, three oboes, one bassoon, two horns, three trumpets, theorbo, timpani, organ and harpsichord, as well as a choir of about 35, though of course not all of these for all pieces.

The Tinalley String Quartet’s Unique Voice: Bach, Haydn, Shostakovich and Beethoven

Dmitri Shostakovich.

The chamber music fairy can touch any group anywhere, it seems, whether or not they have masses of recordings with prestigious labels, or a ‘high profile’ (in fact I don’t think she even reads the newspaper or listens to recordings). Even so, the Tinalley String Quartet knows their music backward and forward, as if there were no phrase or note they hadn’t rehearsed, discussed or thought about, or just intuitively understood on the moment. They are a very tight group, the sum total of their sound shows care and understanding, as if their feel for and ideas of the music span it vertically, horizontally and diagonally on any diagonal the composer cares to involve, particularly so in the Bach Art of Fugue pieces and the fugal last movement of the Haydn quartet. The close acoustic of the room only reveals the nuanced detail in their ensemble sound and the unique colors and textures of their group’s voice, very sonorous and woody, rounded and well seasoned, rich, but one where all the instruments are clear and yet combine into something greater than the sum of its parts. The favorable acoustic of the smallish room helps, and I suspect chamber music, especially the string quartet, often comes across more strident in tone than the ideal intentions of the artists when played in a larger concert hall shared with orchestras, but a small room like the Utzon Room would only reveal flaws or empty spaces in an inferior group or a less thoughtful and personal interpretation. Here the room was merely complementary, as if just subtly lifting something already there. It was a remarkable mature performance for any group, let alone one so young (founded in 2003 at the University of Melbourne) with musicians as young as they are (all in their late 20s or 30s), but one isn’t really aware of such mundane temporal qualities when they play.

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