Encores & Curtain Calls: Joseph braves a snowstorm for a fantastic performance
Both Greenfield Community College and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst will celebrate the 330th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach with free performances this month.
“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”
— Pablo Picasso
The New Year is nigh upon us. So, let us lift our cups to artists — those seemingly crazed, courageous souls who consistently manage to extract their souls from the oh-so-easily-accumulated “dust of daily life” and to refresh ours, over and over again, with the glow of their singing, playing, dancing or otherwise outrageous outpourings. We embrace them, one and all, as they have embraced — through days, months, years and decades of solitary endeavors — their beloved Muses.
I am listening now, as upon many occasions in my life, to the one piece that those who love most truly and know most deeply often refer to as the profoundest piece of music ever written, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne in D minor, the epic climax of his Partita No. 2 in D Minor for Solo Violin. This is the final work both on the CD “Bella” and also during the recent performance of Bella Hristova, who electrified the air with the work at her stand-alone solo Bach/Ysaye violin recital at the Brattleboro Music Center concert at Centre Congregational Church Saturday. Dec. 14. Alas, a goodly portion of the ticket holders were deterred by the looming snowstorm, which was in full force by the time the concert let out.
Admittedly, it’s nice to have one’s positive premonitions about up-and-coming performers confirmed now and then. It’s long been the policy of Encores & Curtain Calls to preview rather than review performances which have come and gone. But, after all, it’s the season to be jolly and a bit of celebration is in order:
Indeed, after having missed the 91 South exit due to flakes thicker and more furious than a dragon’s scales, it was only by the grace of a purloined snow shovel, which enabled me to dig out of the driveway of a darkened household, plus a further 45 minutes of snail-slow, white-knuckle driving, that the Christmas angels saw me to my Northfield driveway long after Hristova’s luminous recital. Yet, I did not regret my choice to brave the elements on her behalf.
Those who chanced to read my preview last week know that I described Hristova’s choice to do an entire evening of unadorned violin music as “risky.” Well, ironically, Hristova’s sponsor for the occasion, violin maker Douglas Cox, sent an email the following day quoting a review written by the Reformer’s Jim Lowe. It read, in part:
“Performing Bach’s works for solo violin is a dangerous business, particularly for young musicians. Not only is there a tradition of masterful performances by the greatest violinists in history, they are among the deepest works ever written, intellectually and emotionally.
“The danger for a young musician is that in making them exciting, they miss the depth; or in performing them intellectually making them a crashing bore. Yet Bach’s solo violin music can be among the most rewarding one can hear.
“Bulgarian-born violinist Bella Hristova took that chance and truly prevailed. At 28, she delivered a masterful performance ... with a comfort and confidence of knowing this music intimately, yet never losing the freshness of discovery, making it rewarding and exciting for a most appreciative audience.”
Now, as a lifelong classical guitarist, my first experience of this monumental Bach masterpiece was in the throbbingly intense performance of the legendary guitar virtuoso Andres Segovia, in whose hands the quickly-vanishing sonorities of the violin were breathtakingly sustained by virtue of the guitar’s far greater polyphonic (many-layered) prowess.
What had been merely implied linear innuendos and harmonic allusions suddenly became cinematically displayed realities and a web of colors and textures were liberated in ways that, literally, brought tears to my eyes. I was not listening to “a little piece for a solo guitar” — or violin, for that matter — but was rather immersed in an all-consuming world of sound and meaning.
It seems, even to this day, as if Segovia had been “wired,” plugged in to some Cosmic Source whose voltage threatened to blow one’s fuses.
Not that knowing so really matters, but a chaconne is nothing more than a series of recurring bass notes or chords — a chassis or scaffolding of sorts — upon which a composer contrives to create a musical superstructure, a series of inventions that please or delight or, in this case, electrify. Merely clever or otherwise snazzy composers choose to amuse or amaze us through increasingly virtuosic pyrotechnics that “wow” the listeners technically. Great composers like Bach do it by going emotionally deeper, wider and higher.
This is what brings the flood of passion through one’s heart and the unstoppable tears to one’s eyes for, paradoxically, one does not find oneself leaving oneself but, somehow, truly “coming home,” not unlike the moving, if admittedly sentimental, climax to “The Wizard of Oz.”
And so the gospel, the truly Good News, is that Bach did not die 260 years ago and his music is not “getting older,” his art is vibrating and alive here and now.
And lest there be any doubters out there amongst my besieged readers, I would only urge you do your homework and to find that the original meaning of the abused word “salvation” was “a safe return home.” Period and amen.
A merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.
Manchester Music Festival
For those still in search of holiday diversion, the beautifully situated Manchester Music Festival will be presenting its fourth annual New Year’s Eve Celebration Concerts on Tuesday, Dec. 31, at the First Congregational Church in Manchester Village, featuring the Manchester Music Festival Ensemble with soloists Joana Genova and Heather Braun, violins; Elizabeth Wright, piano; and Margaret Telscher, mezzo-soprano, in a program featuring Bach, Piazzolla, and seasonal favorites.
The day’s performances begin with a 4 p.m. Family Concert that will include students from the festival’s Michael Rudiakov Music Academy playing alongside the professional musicians, with some family-friendly music, selections from the evening concert and a special performance of a song composed by academy student Katianna Nardone and sung by Telscher. The Family Concert is free for children 18 and under, and $13 for adults. It is a festive and inexpensive way for families of all ages to kick off their New Year’s celebration.
At 6 p.m., the festival’s Evening Concert features a slightly longer program that opens with Genova and Braun playing J.S. Bach’s Double Violin Concerto. Following this lively duet, Telscher will sing selections from Cole Porter and Herman Hupfeld, and hot on Telscher’s heels will be the Festival Ensemble with Astor Piazzolla’s intriguing tango collection, “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.” Telscher returns with a selection from “Die Fledermaus” and the concert ends with a rousing rendition of Strauss’ “Radetzky March.” Evening concert attendees will also be treated to a selection of fine chocolates and a sparkling toast. Tickets for the 6 p.m. performance are $30 for adults, $13 for the 18-and-under set. Tickets can be purchased online at mmfvt.org, by phone at 802-362-1956 and at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vt.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.