Tuesday, October 2, 2007

So what's "Wired Bach" about?

This weekend's "Wired Bach" Ars Lyrica program is an all-Bach affair, with lots of wires (two harpsichords and five string instruments) plus some highly caffienated music. You won't need to stop at Starbuck's before this one!

Concert info: Saturday, Oct 6 at 7:30 pm
at St Philip Presbyterian Church (San Felipe just outside West Loop 610)
Tickets available at the door only.

Here are some notes on the program by yours truly:

J. S. Bach wrote his first keyboard concertos between 1717 and 1723 during his service to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. Concerti for multiple harpsichords followed during Bach’s long tenure in Leipzig, perhaps as a means of sharing the spotlight occasionally with his gifted sons, all of whom eventually entered the family trade (Bach would surely have played one of the solo parts himself). Most of these concerti, including those for solo harpsichord, are transcriptions of earlier works for other instruments, and yet that doesn’t render them somehow less idiomatic than other keyboard concerti. Bach had no trouble transferring musical ideas from one medium to another, and some of his transcriptions are arguably more successful pieces than their originals. Of the two double-harpsichord concerti on tonight’s program, the first (BWV 1060) will be familiar to some as a violin and oboe concerto.

Bach’s concerti usually follow the Vivaldian model, with two fast movements surrounding a highly embellished slow movement. In the C-minor double concerto the strings are integral to the articulation of the ritornello (refrain) passages in the outer movements and they accompany the extensive solo writing in a variety of ways. The C-major concerto, on the other hand, had no string parts in its earliest incarnation. Though a late addition, the strings are welcome one, for they help to reinforce important cadential points and add their distinctive warm color to a what is otherwise a fairly wiry texture.

The two violin sonatas on this program are formally similar but they reflect two different ways of treating the harpsichord during the Baroque. The G major Sonata (BWV 1021) for violin and continuo has just two lines of music: a melody line for violin and a bass line with figures that indicate the harmonies to be realized above it. The A major Sonata (BWV 1015), on the other hand, is for violin and harpsichord obbligato, meaning that the right-hand part is fully realized by the composer. It is one of a set of six such pieces that are among the first to treat the keyboard in this more modern manner.

Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello pay homage to the traditional Baroque dance suite (allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue) while incorporating more modern dances (minuets, bourrées) and imposing introductory preludes as well. The second of these begins with a marvelously ruminative exploration of the dark D minor tonality; its dances are by turns pensive and perky. Like its sister suites, it demonstrates with particular eloquence how Bach (to quote a late 18th-century writer) managed to “make melody out of harmony, and harmony out of melody.”

Much of this music was first heard on programs of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, an ensemble made up primarily of university students, whose direction Bach assumed in the mid 1720s. Performances by this ensemble took place at a coffee-house and occasionally at an outdoor garden owned and operated by Gottfried Zimmermann. Their convivial and highly caffienated atmosphere was conducive to informal programs that freely mixed instrumental and vocal chamber works: Bach’s famous “Coffee Cantata” was intended for just such an occasion. The instrumental music Bach wrote for such programs is similarly “wired”: it’s unambiguously cheerful, with busy contrapuntal lines going seemingly every which way but always with a final goal in mind.

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