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!

march music moderne comes in like a lion

Free Marz String Trio | Photo: Charles Noble

Just like its eponymous month, March Music Moderne came in like a lion last night with the opening salvo (not including the first Thursday opening at Polish Hall) at the Community Music Center last night. This was the Bob Priest (festival organizer) produced Free Marz Trio concert that is often the highlight of each year’s festival. It was a concert on the longish side (close to 2 1/2 hours), especially given the density of the material, but it proved, even then, to be more than the sum of its parts, and infinitely rewarding.

If you attend a recital or concert with a musician, and you hear them remark at the close that they feel like going home to practice, then they were very inspired by what transpired during the concert. I felt like going home to practice, especially in light of Joël Belgique’s seemingly effortless traversals of two of Garth Knox’s Viola Spaces etudes for solo viola. The concert opened with the Viola Space #4, entitled Pizzicato: Nine Finger, a pizzicato tour de force of nearly unparalleled virtuosity. The audience was rapt as Belgique produced an incredible variety of tone colors, rhythms, and implied melodies using just eight fingers and a thumb, culminating at the end with both hands turned opposite their normal directions and strumming at the peg box end of the fingerboard. None of us could believe what we were seeing and hearing!

The concert closed with Viola Space #8, entitled Bow Directions: “Up, down, sideways, round”. Whereas the first work of the evening was all about plucking the strings, this work was all about the use of the bow in just about every possible, but non-traditional, way. It was truly a frenzy of bowing possibilities. At times it was feared that the friction might cause a fire, boy scout style, but a blaze never materialized from this blazing performance. He earned the most hearty ovations of the evening.

The Free Marz Trio at Community Music Center tonight. Superb playing!
The Free Marz String Trio at Friday’s concert. | Photo: Charles Noble

Bob Priest commissioned 10 local composers to write 1 minute marches for string trio based upon whatever aspect of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring most spoke to them, in honor of the piece’s 100th anniversary. And indeed, there were 10 very different marches on display. The most memorable were those by Robert McBride, Michael Johanson, and Bonnie Miksch, though all were expertly crafted and well written for the forces at their disposal. All were played with aplomb by the Free Marz String Trio, with some vocal utterances of exasperation after the particularly thorny work by Johanson.

MMM founder Bob Priest | Photo: Chris Leck Photography
MMM founder Bob Priest | Photo: Chris Leck Photography

The eight hundred pound gorilla of the evening was Witold Lutoslawski’s sole String Quartet (1964). Clocking in a nearly 25 minutes, it is a piece of astonishing breadth and power. It is unique in that it is one of the first works to combine notated music with aleatoric music, i.e., music in which some of the elements of the music are left up to chance and the performers, with a framework provided by the composer. As Meyer-Eppler said at one of the infamous Darmstadt new music courses, “a process is said to be aleatoric … if its course is determined in general but depends on chance in detail”. As Bob Priest noted in his brief remarks before the performance, this work perhaps represents an inner monologue of the Polish mind, having lived through the horrors of the Second World War and the subsequent horrors of the Soviet regime. It was given a towering performance by the members of the Free Marz Trio, joined by violinist and fEarNoMusic artistic director Paloma Griffin. As I tweeted right after the performance, I found myself “between loving and hating the piece, but with absolutely no ambivalence”.

Two brief works of Stravinsky received deft arrangements by Bob Priest and Jeff Winslow, and correspondingly deft performances.

Justin Kagan, cellist, was joined by Jeannie Baldwin for a lovely and impassioned performance of the Elegy movement from Elliot Carter’s Cello Sonata (1948). Kagan prefaced the performance by reading a letter from Carter to Kagan’s parents (his father, a cellist and his mother, a pianist), thanking them for performing his Sonata with such dedication.

Shostakovich’s youthful Piano Trio, Op. 8 was played by Inés Voglar Belgique, Kagan, and Baldwin. It is one of those works which could fool many in a blind hearing, or ‘drop the needle’ test, as it is unabashedly romantic in its outlook, and not at all containing any the sardonic wit or biting sarcasm that would soon creep into the composer’s works. It was given an assured and beautiful performance.

It was a highly rewarding evening that was very well attended, though there were few under the age of 50 to be found in the audience, which was a shame, since admission was free of charge. This was music that everyone should have the chance to hear.