The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Here are 8 lessons I learned from my day of “Berlitz Bach” at Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Bach Around the Clock 3” last Saturday | March 23, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

I call it “Berlitz Bach.”

That’s because my experience last Saturday amounted to total immersion, much the way the famous Berlitz school teaches foreign languages so effectively.

From noon to midnight, Wisconsin Public Radio and the Pres House (“Pres” for Presbyterian) held the third annual Back Around the Clock to greet the 327th birthday — which was this past Wednesday — of Johann Sebastian Bach. It was webcast live and in real time by WPR.

Most performers played a couple of pieces, in 15- to 30-minute intervals. I heard much to enjoy. But I also learned some new things or had previous lessons reinforced. Most things remained similar to the two previous years, although this there time seemed to be more young students and amateur community members, fewer individual or group singers, fewer professional groups, and better refreshments and treats.

Here are the eight lessons I learned, although I could probably come up with more if I thought about it longer:

1. Call him the greatest composer. Call him the best composer. Call him the most influential composer. Call him whatever you want, but Johann Sebastian Bach (below) brings out the public like nobody else.

It is hard to imagine doing the same 12-hour community celebration as successfully with any other composer. In fact, it was so successful that WPR music director Cheryl Dring, who founded the event and continues to direct it, says that she had to turn away quite a few would-be performers.

As a result she has already set a date for BATC 4: March 16. 2013. And, she says, she may expand it by two hours, from 10 a.m. to midnight, just to accommodate all the people – professionals, amateurs and students – who want to participate. Stay tuned.

2. Madison truly is a haven for classical music.

Madison has an awful lot of classical music for a city of 250,000 in a county of 300,000 – as those of us who live here well know since we often have to choose between conflicting or competing events.

But apparently others in the area and region also know it and appreciate it, and so Madison now has a reputation beyond the city limits. One example: Husband and wife Roy and Nancy Carroll — he is a keyboard player and she is a flutist — drove all the way, with a harpsichord,  from Dubuque, Iowa, to perform, according to Dring, who also said that listeners came from as far away as Racine to attend the event. And the listeners who wandered in and out all day and night were young, old and in-between as well as attentive and appreciative.

3. Bach transplants well and survives in just about any setting, form or genre. He truly is timeless.

I heard Bach’s “Musette” on bagpipe from a Saint Patrick’s Day bagpiper – Sean Michael Dargan — who wandered in. But, sad to say, I missed Michael Briggs playing Bach on the accordion and the jazz piano stylings of another participant..

I also heard Bach’s Trio Sonata No. 1, superbly and beautifully done on cello and two saxophones (the saxophone didn’t even exist unit the late 19th century) by the Simonson Trio (bel0w), which featured cellist Brian Grimm, alto saxophonist Pete Ross and soprano saxophonist Dennis Simonson.

I heard original scorings of the solo violin partitas and sonatas (Michelle Xie, below bottom, played the Adagio from the Solo Violin Sonata No. 1) and solo cello suites (Lindsay Crab, below top, played the entire Cello Suite No. 3).

I heard a ear-catching duet arrangement for flute (right hand) and bassoon (left hand) by Casey Oelkers and Cynthia Cameron Fix of Two-Part Inventions that were originally composed for solo for keyboard and played by countless students for the instructional intent Bach intended them to have. Here they are (below) playing Invention No. 4 in D Minor:

I heard pianists play works for the organ, and organ people — like Alex Ford — play all kinds of organ works on the digital organ that features sound samplings from the organ Bach himself used.

I heard the all-adult and many-elder New Horizons Wind Ensemble play chorale preludes, including Martin Luther’s own tune “A Mighty Fortress” (below):

3. No Bach is easy or small.

Forget titles. Even the so-called “Little Preludes” are challenging to play. But all Bach, big or small, is worth it. It is hard to think of another composer with so much music to his credit and so few failures among it. Bach (1685-1759) wrote an enormous amount in his 65 years. All the more reason, then, it is good to take some time to appreciate his variety, productivity and quality – and to play him with confidence. His music holds up to just about anything.

4. The future of classical music is secure, no matter what sales figures and prognosticators say.

How do I know? BATC is a great event for students to learn to perform and to share their musical gifts with others, and we need more such events.

Once again, as you can see from the photos, dozens of students came from the studios of teachers Gloria Chuang, Bill Lutes, Irmgard Bittar, Denise Taylor and others.

BATC 3 was also a family affair in many cases. For example, Madison piano teacher Denise Taylor accompanied her daughter Ellie Taylor on violin (below top) in a transcription of the two Gavottes from the Orchestral Suite in D Major, and then herself played the Prelude and Fugue in E Minor from Book I of “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” despite being unnerved when she was asked to cut out one of the two pieces she had prepared in order to save a couple of minutes (Unfair, I say!):

5. Adults, even older adults, can start at the beginning and learn to play an instrument – and to play Bach, and to be rewarded for their efforts.

Take David Pilmer (below): He started late in life but played beautifully and from memory. And he wasn’t alone.

6. Bach was a prophet who prefigures the rest of music that followed him.

You can see Bach as the summation of what came before him. No surprise, there.

But when retired University Opera director Karlos Moser explained and then played half a dozen fugues (without their Preludes) from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier – and played them more beautifully and robustly than I have ever heard – Bach’s legacy became clear.

Listen closely. Your hear seeds, stalks and blossoms.  You could hear the Baroque, of course. But you could also hear Classicism. You could hear Romanticism. You could even hear 12-tone and serial music, such as the theme from Fugue 24 where Bach uses all 12 tones in the scale in the theme. Maybe such comprehensiveness helps to explain Bach’s universality.

7. You do not have to be old, wise or experienced to have musicality.

I heard some astounding playing from very young students who performed on the piano, the violin, the viola, the organ. It was full of confidence and technical precision and, for lack of a better term, soul– just like the playing of Allen Chang (below).

8. Wrong notes don’t matter.

BATC started as an informal community celebration, a public event where casual dress and casual playing remain the norm. People could pick and choose movements according to their taste.

But more importantly, the event made you realize just how little mistakes matter. Music exists for the joy of communicating beauty and joy to others. There were no Olympics judges holding up scorecards and awarding medals. Instead, there was plenty of appreciation and applause for everyone – whether they were old or young;  professionals or amateurs; using modern old instruments; hitting right notes or wrong ones.

That is the joy of music.

And the joy of Bach, who apparently had a good sense of humor and would have appreciated the Warhol-like poster for BATC 3:

Thank you, all – Cheryl Dring, Wisconsin Public Radio, Pres House and the many dozens of performers and listeners.

I will see you again – and maybe even play for you – next March 16.

As either a performer or a listener, do you have some comments about or reactions to Bach Around the Clock 3?

The Ear wants to hear.

Meanwhile, here are viola da gambist Eric Miller and harpsichordist Max Yount, who performed two of the three gamba (or cello) sonatas by Bach:

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3 Comments »

  1. good review Jake–i was there for the whole 12 hours (I have always thought Bach’s birthday should be a major holiday!)–had a wonderful time, especially enjoyed Anne Wadsack’s performance of a French suite–since we knew each other at West High (ca. 1960) and are both getting back to music in retirement, it bolstered my nerve to play a simple chorale on the cello–
    i do disagree that the mistakes don’t matter–i think the errors and wrong notes are part of the lesson of live music: they remind us how challenging it is to play, how challenging it is to perform, and give us an appreciation and humility as we study this genius that we sometimes lose in the perfect performance of recordings

    Comment by Mary Gordon — March 23, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

  2. Jacob, you misspoke about my “Jazz Stylings” — I believe that was provided by another gentlemen who occasionally comments to you, and is in fact a jazz musician. His handle is “BBPlayer”; I don’t know his real name. I believe he said he was playing at 10:30 PM, if you wanted to check that out.

    Just for the record, I played two Busoni transcriptions of Bach Organ Chorales (“Wachet auf, Ruft Uns die Stimme; and “In DIr ist Freude”, to be specific) at the beginning and end. In between was a complete rendition of the French Suite No 6 (meaning with repeats). The piano was wonderfully regulated and beautifully in tune — a joy to perform!

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — March 23, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

    • Hi Tim,
      I think I heard that form one of the hosts.
      But I will rewrite the post to leave you out of the jazz.
      I apologize.
      Sorry for the error.
      And even sorrier I didn’t get to hear your Busoni.
      I also attended the wonderful concert that night by the UW Symphony Orchestra. (Such Mahler and Bach-Webern!)
      Best,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 23, 2012 @ 1:46 pm


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