bach at the beach

Neakahnie Mountain, with Arch Cape in the distance, from Manzanita Beach.

The Goldbergs, insular and obsessed, have all the failings of classical music in general. The piece is a text reflecting on itself, satisfied in its own world, suggesting that everything you would ever want to know is contained within. The variations (by definition music about music) are subject to countless insider discussions in the outer world, to comparisons of recordings like heavyweight bouts, to that annoying word “definitive”. Despite this, Bach’s smile wins through. The piece is a lesson in many things, but primarily in wonder: the way that the tragic variations fuse seamlessly into the breathlessly comic, the way that simple scales become energy, joy, enthusiasm, the celebration of the most fundamental elements of music. This is the kind of beatific happiness that Beethoven eventually tried to attain, after the heroic happiness of the middle period. The last movements of Beethoven’s Op 109 and Op 111 invoke the Goldbergs, and represent a joy beyond achievement.

Jeremy Denk, “Bach’s Goldberg Variations caused me misery – but I still can’t get enough”The Guardian (7 November 2013)

“If I decide to be an idiot, then I’ll be an idiot on my own accord.”

Johann Sebastian Bach

In those two quotes lies the lot of the musician who has decided to take on one of the greatest pieces of Western music ever written. Especially if one chooses to take on the arrangement for the string trio.

Unlike Jeremy Denk (and Bach), I’m not a pianist. Now, many people say that they “aren’t pianists”, even if they do have decent skills on the instrument, as a way of being modest. But I, on the other hand, absolutely do not. I have zero piano skills. I was able to fake my way through keyboard harmony in undergrad. Thankfully I didn’t go to a conservatory, which would have required me to have met a keyboard proficiency requirement. I do wish I could play the piano, but I’m still hard at work trying to play the viola properly! So, with this complete lack of understanding of the keyboard – and its challenges and capabilities – to listen to a great pianist performing the Goldberg Variations is mind boggling. That’s bad enough. At least as a pianist you have only yourself to contend with in interpreting this grand composition of an Aria and thirty variations. What if you had three pianists, each playing a voice with one hand, all clustered around the keyboard? That’s sort of what it’s like to work on this piece with a string trio. Before you assume that I think this is a fool’s errand, I’ll assuage your doubts by saying that this is an incredibly difficult thing to do, but also one of the most profound and rewarding projects I’ve ever done.

I spent several days this past week at a wonderful vacation home on the beach in Manzanita taking part in an intensive rehearsal retreat to take the first steps in breaking down and building back up again this incredible work.

Nice rehearsal view, isn’t it?

One of the great challenges of the Variations is finding the distinct character of each one. They do range, as Denk says above, “from tragic to breathlessly comic”, and they can each take from 30 seconds to five minutes to traverse, depending upon the repeat structure and how one intends to honor (or not) that structure. We’ve taken to finding one word descriptors to help guide our efforts. Some of those that we’ve arrived at so far: Exuberant (Var. I), Abashed (Var. II), Fleet (Var. V), and Ancient (Var. IX), among many others. It’s a good exercise, and one that viola students of Karen Tuttle would be quite familiar with.

Dmitri Sitkovetsky, Gerard Caussé, and Mischa Maisky perform Sitkovetsky’s arrangement.

Having a different instrument on each voice, or sometimes with different instruments taking parts of a single voice’s part, presents its own problem that the different players bring different ideas to the same voice – but this is also the reason that the arrangement is so brilliant. We’re doing the arrangement by the eminent Russian violinist Dmitri Sitkovetsky, which is, as far as I know, the first arrangement of its kind for this configuration of instruments. There is also a string orchestra version.

A string trio performing the Goldberg Variations, in this case an arrangement by Bruno Giuranna.

This coming weekend, I’ll be taking this enormous musical and emotional journey with my Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival colleagues – Artistic directors cellist Leo Eguchi, and violinist Sasha Callahan – in the phenomenal acoustic of the barrel cave of J. Christopher Wines. It’s a fantastic place to hear music, and the wine will be fantastic as well (tastings for two wines – each paired with the music of the program – are included in the ticket price). The first half consists of two works by young composers on the rise, Caroline Shaw (Limestone and Felt for viola and cello) and Missy Mazzoli (Lies You Can Believe In for string trio). I hope you can join us!

lynn harrell & friends in wyoming

April 20, 2019
Buchanan Center for the Performing Arts

Festival registration: $25

A day of community and inspiration:

“Lynn Harrell and Friends” Concert
Bach Cello Suite and Brahms Op. 36 Sextet in G

  • John Fadial & Jeff Multer, violin
  • Charles Noble and James Przygocki, viola
  • Beth Vanderborgh, cello

Download the Cello Festival Flyer, or register today

on bach

LigockiThis past Saturday afternoon I played on the occasion of a memorial service for a violist friend of mine. His name was Scott Ligocki. He grew up in Seattle, went off to study at Curtis with Michael Tree, and returned to Seattle to begin an enormously successful teaching studio, and play principal viola with the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra, among many other things. One of those other things was teaching each summer at the Max Arnoff Viola Institute, which I co-founded with my viola teacher at the University of Puget Sound, Joyce Ramée, in 1990.

Scott was a person of remarkable depth. I don’t know anyone who really knew all of him (is that ever possible for anyone?), but his lifelong friend Terry Muir, who spoke Saturday, said that he certainly didn’t – even though he knew him perhaps better than anyone. I only really knew Scott through that one week a year when we’d basically see each other at meal times and in the green room backstage during faculty recitals. But he affected me in subtle ways that I’m only just now beginning to understand. Some of those realizations just came to me right before the service began. Kim Zabelle, a long-time friend of Scott’s, who organized much of the service for the family, came up and thanked me for coming up to play. She said that the Bach D minor Suite was “Scott’s piece, he played it all the time, whenever [Bach was called for].” And while I sat in the audience, listening to reminiscences of friends and colleagues, and watching the ineveitably devastating slideshow with music from his life, the rightness of the Bach D minor for Scott came into focus.

The Bach Cello Suites (appropriated by violists since, basically, forever) each have their own character. The G major is open, and freely, even naively happy. The C major is much the same, perhaps with even more exhuberance. The E-flat Major is more cerebral and intense. The C Minor is darkly translucent. And the epic D major is dark and light in equal measure, peppered with virtuosity. The D minor, the second of the six, however, is for me the suite of the introvert. It is deceptively simple from its outward appearance, but surpassingly deep. It is dark, pensive, flowing. It has moments of energy – particularly its quicksilver Courante – but even the ‘happiest’ of its movements, the concluding Gigue, pulls its punches, leaving room for tinges of melancholy amidst its charactaristic bounding gestures. And that, it seems, is much like Scott was, and is, to me. Scott had a wonderful sense of humor, but also had silent depths (reached through his many years of studying meditation) that anchored everything. He always seemed so considered in all that he did. Every conversation I had with him seemed meaningful, which is exceedingly rare. And special.

So, as I began to play the Allemande and Gigue from the D minor Suite this past Saturday, it all seemed to make perfect sense. And my awe and admiration for the genius and humanity of Johann Sebastian Bach grew again by leaps and bounds. In the words of one of my dear colleagues, “Bach KNEW”.