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Oregon summer Bach festivals: Bach in Black

June 26, 2014


My sister, an excellent flutist, asked me to accompany her at one of her student recitals years ago. Great! I proposed the first movement of the b-minor flute sonata by Johann Sebastian Bach — my favorite flute and keyboard chamber work. Not only do the other Bach flute sonatas wither next to this one, but so do the other movements in this sonata. It’s so chromatic (notes slithering onto notes right next door though they don’t necessarily belong in that neighborhood) you’d think aphrodisiac,  like the opening of Carmen’s ubersexy  “Habanera” with those slippery notes sliding into home plate.


But in fact, this sonata induces a desperate grieving in me whenever I play it with her… which is more often than she likes.

For me, Bach is always only a heartbeat away, though he’s especially prominent this summer. A new album features rock and other pop musicians playing music inspired by Bach. And summer in Oregon always means TWO Bach festivals — June 26-July 13 in Eugene and four other cities and July 23-25 in Mt. Angel at the Abbey.

What I’ll be hoping to hear at the Bach Festivals, although I rarely find it in Bach performances, is the unvarnished and often rough passion that I see in his scores and feel when I play so much of his music. Where does it come from? I thought that a new book by a scholar and conductor of Bach’s choral works, someone who, like Bach, is also a trail-blazing independent spirit, might help me in my sleuthing, just as another book I read recently helped me understand Shakespeare — who’s also all over Oregon stages this summer.

Emotional Intensity

Defaulting perpetually to mining the anguish I hear in Bach’s flute sonata and asking to play it over and over perplexed my sister. She finally consulted her ancient Grove dictionary edited by Stanley Sadie in 1980, reading up on Bach, cross referencing the flute sonata with Bach’s timeline.

“Maria!” she called me, excited to reveal her epiphany. “You’ll never guess! The b-minor flute sonata was written right after Bach came back from a trip in 1720 to find out his beloved wife who he left perfectly healthy, was dead and buried!”

Bach scholar Christoph Wolff postulates that the sonata may have been written much later, possibly in the 1730s, though the b-minor version we know and love is based on an earlier version written in g-minor and possibly that version is based on a still earlier trio sonata. So who knows, maybe the visceral grief I feel every time I delve into this work really does stem from Maria Barbara Bach’s untimely death, and I am in fact empathetically channeling Sebastian’s shock and incomprehension as he revisits over and over his loss in identical phrases set in different keys, searching for a reason from another angle, hoping for closure, understanding… or at least a respite. It never comes in that first movement, which is why it’s so hard-hitting. The piece just stops: no cadence, no neatly summed up Hollywood ending.

This is not a stand-alone instance for me — experiencing over-the-top emotional intensity with J. S. Bach. The Prelude from his a-minor English Suite is homicidal. The Prelude and Fugue in b-flat minor from the first volume of his collected Preludes and Fugues is achingly needy — as Romantic as Chopin. I could go on, but not in this article.

What is it about Sebastian that sends me into paroxysms? Trust me, it ain’t about the math — the neatly contrived rules of counterpoint or the breaking of those rules by this acknowledged guru of the game. Long ago I re-trained myself to listen to performances like a regular person, NOT like a music school or conservatory trained insider. I want bang for my buck, I want to “Get off [my] butt and FEEL things!” (Janis Joplin). I do not care what the harmonic progression is, I do not care how many other pieces were quoted in the composition and I will NEVER care — not even on the thousandth hearing!

“I would rather move the listener than amaze him,” his older contemporary, French Baroque composer Francois Couperin stated, and Bach listened.

Where his peers Telemann and Handel were hellbent on becoming celebrities on par with Elton John in his peacock heyday, Bach was hellbent on saving souls, including my own tired ass, by alternatingly cheerleading and cajoling us as we walk through the fire of our own particular hell with him by our side or in front of us on the score. At best, Handel is a bouncy feel-good motivational speaker. Bach is AA on a bad day — not a place for sissies, but you can’t afford to miss that meeting if you really want to get better, if you’re really sincere about confronting your self and real life.

Desperately Seeking Sebastian

“There’s a sucker born every minute” and I exist as proof of David Hannum’s assertion. I fell for the hoopla and bought Fifty Shades of Grey, thinking the porn industry finally got it right. It didn’t and I gave up after twenty pages of Harlequin-romance-swill. This year, I fell for famous English conductor and historically informed performance specialist John Eliot Gardiner’s new Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, hoping he might finally shed some insight on my channeling the intensely grieving, homicidally angry, Late-Romantic — in short, the unleashed passionate Bach I osmose through pieces I’ve played such as the b-minor flute sonata.

iuBut Gardiner, who has conducted all of Bach’s hundreds of cantatas, motets, Passions and more, spends over half the book analyzing Sebastian’s choral works and I am not a choral person. I mistakenly believed this book, published by Knopf and not an academic press, was targeted for the general audience/mass market and not for the niche Baroque choral crowd… well, okay, scrum.

As for the other half… the early reviews promised that the book would show me the angry Bach, the bad boy Bach, the Bach who got sent to jail for a month for insubordination toward his employer the Duke of Saxe-Weimar. I hoped Gardiner’s research would corroborate and explain the fury I felt wafting from Bach scores such as the Prelude from his a-minor English Suite. Instead, I got two pages detailing the decrepitude of the Eisenach Latin School.

“Back in 1678 [seven years before Bach’s birth] Georg von Kirchberg reported an overall ‘slackness and contempt for good discipline’ to the Eisenach Consistory. More disquieting were rumours of a ‘brutalisation of the boys’ linked to evidence that many parents kept their children at home — not because they were sick but for fear of what went on in or outside school.” (page 46)

During Bach’s second year there, 339 boys were enrolled at the school, most of them crammed into the choir loft. There were not enough books to go around and “no form of playground for which to let off steam” (p. 47). Bach missed 96 school days in first grade, 59 in second grade and 103 in the third grade. Gardiner’s conclusion: “we will never know whether young Sebastian Bach was inside church taking part, or outside with his mates creating mayhem” (p. 47)


Sebastian spends nearly one-third of the year playing hooky, comes from a high profile (if poor) family, is eight years old when this shit hits the fan and Gardiner thinks Bach might be picking up girls, swilling wine and knifing kindergarteners?

How about: nerd boy can’t deal with the toughs and being the youngest child, his mama protects him — keeping him away from school where the thugs might pick on her little boy, putting herself at risk of being fined or imprisoned for not sending Sebastian to school?

It only gets worse. Sebastian’s mommy dies a year later and his daddy one year after mommy. How about being left alone in the world by age ten, abandoned, afraid of being bullied? Can you say “Chip On His Shoulder?”

When I was around Bach’s age, in third or fourth grade, I quietly endured days of being taunted on the bus rides to and from school by kids chanting (some of them my friends) “Greasy Greek!” Eventually the bullies moved on to someone else and thankfully I was not orphaned. But I’m sure it’s part of the reason I have a chip on my shoulder so deep that if you try to push me around I will cut you!

In Search of Shakespeare

Gardiner attempted what Stephen Greenblatt so successfully achieved with Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare.

iu-1The two titles tell the story. Where Gardiner never could take Bach off the pedestal, Greenblatt (professor of literature at Harvard and general editor of the Norton Shakespeare, among many other credentials pertaining to Shakespeare scholarship) is on a first-name basis with his equally historically elusive subject and places him — feet firmly planted — on terra firma. Greenblatt’s forays into conjecture assume an almost trance state juxtaposed with a Perry Mason cross examination: And isn’t it true, Mr. Burger, or at least possible that the demise of Will’s father was due to advanced alcoholism?

Willing to take these leaps of faith, and to drag us along with him while we all skate on the thin ice of admitted speculation makes Greenblatt’s book a whacky, strange-but-(possibly)-true adventure tale. In his book (if not his conducting), Gardiner lacks Greenblatt’s intrepid spirit of a larger-than-life adventurer, leaving us slogging through page after page of boring analyses and tentative “this-might-have-happeneds.”

Knowledge versus interpretation. It isn’t that Gardiner omits telling us about the tempestuous Bach; it’s that he merely reports what has already been written.

“A pattern was now beginning to emerge in early adulthood: in his short-fused exchanges with Geyerbach, in his refusal to tolerate slip-shod music-making and in his haughty, laconic replies to the consistory (at least as reported), we have evidence of Bach’s propensity to flout-or simply ignore-authority and to disregard the rules of ordered society. In his eyes he would never be guilty, no matter what actually happened: the fault would always lie with somebody else. We can link this behaviour to the alternative characterisations of his unruly temperament, his susceptibility to peer-group pressure, and his experience of bullying and harassment in childhood and the rough-and-tumble of life in the successive schools he had attended….(page 176, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven).

Greenblatt, on the other hand, manufactures a whole world full of plot and emotion, interpreting the few available shards of information, interlocking them in a kaleidoscopic jigsaw puzzle that might solve some of the many mysteries about the Bard, or not — but it kept me riveted, caring about what happened next. For example, he takes the fact that Shakespeare’s ambitious father, an official municipal ale-taster, suffered an extreme financial reversal and asks:

“Did the man who served in 1556 as the borough ale-taster drink himself into deep personal trouble? (p. 67) …Shakespeare depicted heavy drinkers from close-up—he noted the unsteadiness of their legs, the broken veins in their nose and cheeks, their slurred speech—and he did so with an unusual current of understanding, delight, even love. But his sympathy was braided together with other elements….

He saw in Falstaff…a gentleman sinking into mire —but darker and deeper: a debauched genius; a fathomlessly cynical, almost irresistible confidence man; a diseased, cowardly, seductive, lovable monster; a father who cannot be trusted. The drunken-ness that…seems linked to gaiety, improvisational wit, and noble recklessness is unnervingly disclosed at the same time to be part of a strategy of cunning, calculating, and ruthless exploitation of others. Invariably, a failed strategy: the grand schemes, the imagined riches, the fantasies about the limitless future — all come to nothing, withering away in an adult son’s contempt for the symbolic father who has failed him. ‘God save thee, my sweet boy!’ exclaims Falstaff, when he sees Hal in triumph in London. ‘I know thee not, old man,’ Hal replies, in one of the most devastating speeches Shakespeare ever wrote.” (pp. 70-71)

The difference is akin to studious musicians who practice assiduously to technical perfection, doing their homework to make sure they’re playing everything on the page in a way that is approved of by some expert, previous teacher, historical research etc. versus, say, Glenn Gould.

But if Gardiner can’t bring us closer to the source of Bach’s passions, where do listeners and performers turn? Certainly over the past couple of generations, musicians have learned much about his music and how it was played at the time, which may bring them closer to the composer’s emotions that fuel it. The Oregon Bach Festival’s new artistic director, Matthew Halls, comes from the historically informed performance school that Gardiner and earlier Bach interpreters helped pioneer, and he has promised to bring period instruments and a historically informed approach to many Festival performances.

I do not believe historically informed performances ipso facto equal exciting performances. I do believe that musicians who are brave enough and open enough to channeling intense emotion emanating from a score, eschewing pedantic nuances based on previous interpretations or new or old historical knowledge, have a prayer — with focused intentional practice and rehearsal buttressed on clean technique but aimed at capturing that intensity —at moving us, perhaps even moving me to that level of anguished unsentimental keening I experience in the flute sonata, breaking down like Harvey Keitel in The Bad Lieutenant.

I’m attending the Mount Angel Bach Festival to hear a concert by various Bachs in that talented dynasty. While I might hope for Harvey Keitel moments, I am not expecting them. And I should. And so should you. Just because I can access the Bach who tears me apart by playing one of his scores does not excuse me from ignoring performances that do not tear me up — or worse, not attending because I assume I won’t be moved.

And what about you music lovers who aren’t score readers? What if you attend a Bach performance that leaves you meh. Is it Bach’s fault? Is it your fault?  HELL NO!  It’s because the performers didn’t do their job! It is our duty as Bach groupies to not only attend, but also to stand up for ourselves — and Bach. We are entitled to be moved. Bach put his passion in the score — it’s the performers’ job to bring it to you. We gave up our precious time and paid our hard earned money to gain entrance. We SHOULD expect something besides dry knowledge and practiced chops.

My childhood friend, Marcia Hadjimarkos, with whom I took piano lessons from the same teacher, Nellie Tholen, will be on the Friday evening concert July 25th at the Bach festival in Mount Angel along with soprano Julianne Baird. Stay tuned for an exclusive interview on OAW with Marcia, who has been living the dream in France.  And you bet I’m going to ask her about Bach the mad man!

Portland pianist and piano teacher Maria Choban is OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch.

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