2012 Festival Reviews

Cellist enlivens Bach with ease

Donivan Johnson / Correspondent

March 21, 2012

The final concert of the 2012 Northwest Bach Festival on Sunday featured world renowned cellist Zuill Bailey performing three of J.S. Bach's Suites for Solo Cello.

The six suites were written when Bach was in the employ of Prince Leopold of Cothen. This was an extremely prolific time for Bach; he also composed the violin sonatas and partitas, Brandenburg Concertos, Book 1 of "The Well-Tempered Clavier" and numerous other instrumental works.

In the stained-glass- tinted light of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Bailey began the concert with Suite No. 1 in G Major BWV 1007, quite possibly the most famous piece of music written for cello.

Bailey's seemingly effortless technique made Bach's music dance, sing and fill the air with joy. Every movement had a unique voice, and each time a section of dance movement was repeated there was something new and different to hear.

After playing this suite straight through, Bailey explained how he believed Bach created this set of six suites. He believes Bach himself was "learning how to write for solo cello as he went along, each suite getting more technically complicated."

He also shared, with great candor, "It might look easy to play the music, but inside I'm bleeding out." With delightful wit and instant rapport, the audience came to know in detail each movement of Suite No. 2 in D Minor BWV 1008.

"The Prelude to each suite is like a foyer to a house - it sets the mood for the entire work," Bailey said.

He reminded the audience why Prelude to Suite No. 1 is so familiar and popular: It has been used in television commercials and films many times.

Bailey then invited the audience to sing the first few words of "Ave Maria" by Charles Gounod, based on Bach's Prelude in C from Book 1 of "The Well-Tempered Clavier." While the audience sang, he played the opening measures of the cello Prelude, which fit the melody perfectly.
"There is no one correct way to perform these suites; no autograph manuscript in Bach's own hand exists," he said.

Each performer must approach each movement with his or her own tempo, sensibility, musicianship and spirit for the music. Bailey credited the legendary Pablo Casals with making the suites "our cellistic bible. Just as with scripture, there are many interpretations possible."

After intermission, Bailey concluded the concert with Suite No. 3 in C Major BWV 1009, with no break for discussion. The audience was in a position to listen more intently through the entire work, with newfound understanding, imagination and feeling for Bach's unfathomable creative genius.

Bailey received a well-deserved and prolonged standing ovation, then he graciously visited with audience members and signed CDs of his performances. He also encouraged young musicians who stood in line to meet him to continue their practice and love for music.

A more fitting final concert to this year's splendid series could hardly be imagined.

Donivan Johnson, who lives in Metaline Falls, Wash., is a composer, lecturer and music instructor for the Selkirk School District.

All content © 2012 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.

Concert 'reimagines' Bach in 13 ways

Donivan Johnson / Correspondent

March 12, 2012

The third concert of this year's Northwest Bach Festival featured piano virtuoso Lara Downes, who performed the 2004 work "13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg: Bach Re-Imagined" on Saturday night. The title is taken from a 1917 poem by Wallace Stevens, "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."

Thirteen American composers, representing a wide range of ages and musical styles, were commissioned to write a brief work based on the aria from Johann Sebastian Bach's "Goldberg Variations" BWV 988 composed in 1741.

Because of a family illness, scheduled performer William Doppmann canceled his performance of the entire "Goldberg Variations."

To ready the audience at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist for the Spokane premiere of a new work, Connoisseur Concerts provided a recorded version of Glenn Gould's 1955 breakthrough performance of the "Goldberg Variations."

Connoisseur Concerts and Executive Director Gertrude M. Harvey moved quickly to ensure that the festival would have a concert worthy of its reputation for excellence.

While many, including myself, were somewhat disappointed about the change, once the concert began all negative thoughts and expectations were moot.

Downes introduced the work and gave a short description of each composer and their composition created for this "suite."
Rather than play "straight through," she divided the 13 selections into smaller groups. This helped the listener and guided the experience of hearing totally new music and relating it to Bach's work. Her brief descriptions were engaging.

Each movement is a commentary on the aria and included such compositional techniques as blues, jazz, neo-romanticism, humor, limited use of keyboard in the upper two octaves, mild to extreme use of dissonance, and one movement for left hand alone.

The astonishing technical and, more importantly, emotional spectrum demonstrated by the soloist was very much appreciated by the audience, which gave her a standing ovation.

I have never experienced a more moving rendition of the aria, Gould included, than that of Downes at the beginning and end of the 13 movements. It was sublime.

I believe Bach would have approved of this new way of looking at his music and its performance for a number of reasons: Bach was a renowned improviser who constantly changed other composers' works; the exquisite concert grand piano that was provided by the Dr. Jonathan A. Holloway Foundation for this concert; the introduction of a technical innovation (new to many audience members) of having all the music uploaded on an electronic reader with page turning facilitated by a foot pedal; and the sonorous acoustical space of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.

A musical DNA sample of a composer who died more than 260 years ago has been revitalized, renewed and reimagined for the edification and experience of those fortunate to be present Saturday evening.

Donivan Johnson, who lives in Metaline Falls, Wash., is a composer, lecturer and music instructor for the Selkirk School District.

All content © 2012 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.