The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: the marathon “Bach Around the Clock” concert is now officially a tradition in Madison, Wisconsin. Let’s go for three.

March 21, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

When does an event become a tradition?

Probably when the promise of a so-called “first annual” event turns into reality and actually becomes the second annual.

And that is the case with the marathon noon-to-midnight “Bach Around the Clock” concert that was held last Saturday, March 19. Like last year, it was organized by Wisconsin Public Radio and hosted at the Pres House chapel, 731 State St.

The event, patterned after a similar 24-hour event in New Orleans, is to greet the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach (March 21, 1685-July 28, 1750), who is generally considered the be the greatest and most seminal or influential of all composers.

In some ways, this year was harder to do. The momentum for starting something new is often considerably less than the momentum for continuing it.

Add in the early spring break at the University of Wisconsin, where the outstanding School of Music usually provides great performers, both student and faculty, and you have some idea of the challenge.

“We were just killed this year by spring break,” admitted Cheryl Dring, WPR’s music director and morning host who dreamed up and organized the event, then hosted it (below, with Pres House music director Michael Hillestad.)

Dring promised that next year, the event would not coincide with UW Spring Break (March 31-April 8, 2012). I’m happy personally because then it is more likely I will play. The Ear’s guess is BATC-3 will be held on Saturday, March 17, 2012.

But from what I saw and heard, this year was still a resounding success.

It started perfectly, with great contrast between student and professional musicians. Bach’s universality clearly calls to both.

First came 10-year-old Mikaela Steckelis, whose playing was also used for a radio engineer’s sound check, performing Bach’s Two-Part invention No. 13 in A minor on the piano (below).

And she was followed by UW professor and early music specialist John Chappell Stowe (below, with his page-turner, baroque violinist Edith Hines) explaining and playing Bach’s long, difficult and dark English Suite, No. 6 in D Minor, in its entirety on the harpsichord.

Organ music was once again provided in plenty by Alex Ford (below), who played a handful of trio sonatas, preludes and fugues, and choral preludes, including “Wachet auf” (Sleepers, Wake) from Cantata 147 (below and at bottom).

Along the way several piano teachers brought their studios to perform.

They included Denise Taylor, who also accompanied her violinist daughter Ellie (below) in a minuet from the “Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach” and who herself performed the difficult opening movement of Bach’s big Partita No. 4 in D major.

Sophia Musacchio (below) played three movements from the French Suite, No. 6 in E Major.

Caroline Zhou (below) played the Two-Part invention No. 1.

Caleb Zimmick (below) played two of the “Little Preludes,” which don’t seem so little when you are performing them in public.

And Sevan Virperian (below) played the Two-Part Invention No. 8.

Gloria Chuang, who coincidentally also played the same partita movement as Taylor, also brought students, including some very young very talent children – one boy (below) who played with great sensitivity and from memory. But her students (and their pieces) were never identified by themselves or by her, so I can’t credit them by name. I regret that because they worked hard and performed well.

Casey Oelkers (below top) played a solo flute partita that was a delight, while Aaron Catalano showed up in a red badger athletic shirt and played a prelude for guitar (below bottom).

I was particularly impressed with the musicality of solo violinist Maynie Bradley (below).

Some snafus were inevitable – a baritone got a cold and cancelled and a cellist lost a tuning pegged and couldn’t play – but host Dring made the best of it and stay unruffled.

In a nearby cafeteria, generously donated snacks – cookies and peanuts, water and lemonade, coffee and tea – had been provided along with tables and chairs to sit and talk about the music and greet the various performers.

And this year, the statewide live and real-time webcast (below) did NOT fail. So before I went to bed at home, I got to see baroque violinist play a sonata with Stowe and then a wonderful solo sonata of Bach.

Were there mistakes, wrong n motes and memory lapses? Of course, this was a live event. But there was also wonderful music-making and an appreciative and forgiving public.

All in all, it was a lot of fun for the performers and the listeners.

The Ear says: Do It Again Next Year.

Let’s make it No. 3!

And I have a few suggestions to offer:

WPR should start signing up players soon. It gives people an incentive and lots o time to learn pieces and practice them.

Have someone or a couple of people do the same piece – maybe a two- or three—part invention or a prelude and fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier – on the piano and harpsichord so listeners can compare period performance to modern performance. The same goes for the baroque and modern violin.

Maybe a particular teacher could line up five students to each do three Two-Part Inventions and then in Tag Team fashion perform the complete set? Or 15 students to do one each.

Oh well, ideas are easy and execution is hard.

However BATC-3 is planned and turns out, The Ear expects to be there again next year and hear another successful homage to Mr. Bach.

And hopes you will too.

What do you think of this year’s Bach Around the Clock?

Should it continue?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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