Rory Kinnear’s incisive Iago made a trip to The Clark a joy last week. The National Theatre’s production of Othello had a mild-mannered Othello, a hipster Desdemona, and a working-class Iago whose asides had enough energy to pass through walls and ring in the halls, though the other actors seemed not to hear them. His was a display of words — words which could go any which way and say any which thing.
This was a marvelous concert. It had plenitude; there was abundance in it. It was partly the thought-out programming, as always with Dan Stepner’s concerts. But it was also the richness of experience, the ease of it. The viola da gamba gives the sense that around the straight narrowness of the tone, there is something else, full of suggestion. The instrument itself conjures you into listening twice—first to the actual sound, and then, almost against your will, to something else it puts into the room. The viol always seems a private confidant. I have heard Laura Jeppesen perform a great many times, and her playing on this occasion was more fluent than ever, and spoke intimate truth. It made a pact with the listener, a faith that something important was being said.
Sebastian Bäverstam and Yannick Rafalimanana, June 8, 2013 J.S. Bach: Cello Suite No. 1 in G major Ludwig van Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major, Opus 69 Johannes Brahms: [ … ]
It seems utterly puzzling that most of the greatest music of Johann Sebastian Bach barely makes it way to the concert hall. This conundrum was at the core of Simon Wainrib’s musical and entrepreneurial passion. His passing last week gave me an opportunity to reminisce about fulfilling one’s musical dreams, and my own long involvement with the Berkshire Bach Society.
A musician who undertakes an entire program of Bach’s music needs perspective, especially if the program is to be varied. Bach wrote an amazing quantity of music in an amazing variety of styles and genres, and Peter Sykes’ program was assembled with a clear sense of the big picture. There is no substitute for experience, and having played virtually all of Bach’s keyboard music, as well as much of his contemporaries’, Sykes has a clear and convincing idea (whether accurate or not, no one can know) of Bach’s intention for each piece, even each note.
It was excellent to read Kenneth Cooper’s words recently on how he loved the sound of Bach with great players playing great instruments in a large hall. So do I, and this is what we got and have gotten for years now on New Year’s Day in the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in the annual performances by the Berkshire Bach Ensemble. We seem to have arrived at a place between the modern instrument folks (usually using old instruments altered to achieve a stronger sound) and the early music crowd (which tries to emulate the sounds of the 18th century orchestra). Each has its own political correctness, and each works.
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.
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.