The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: What makes for great Bach? Oboist Peggy Pearson of Emmanuel Music of Boston talks about performing again at the Token Creek Festival.

September 3, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

At this weekend’s all-Bach concerts (tonight at 8 p.m. and tomorrow, Sunday, Sept. 4, at 4 p.m.) at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, oboist Peggy Pearson (seen below performing at last year’s festival) returns from Emmanuel Music of Boston, where Token Creek co-directors violinist Rose Mary Harbison and composer John Harbison also perform during the school year.

Once again Pearson will play a prominent role.

The program includes: Chorale Prelude (from 18 Chorale Preludes) “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her”; 
Sonata for Violin in E minor, BWV 1030
; Cantata Arias
 “Die Armen will der Herr umarmen” (from BWV 186), “Ich nehme mein Leiden mit Freuden auf mich” (from BWV 75)
, “Hört, ihr Völker, Gottes Stimme” (from BWV 76), “Gott versorget alles Leben” (from BWV 187); 
Trio Sonata in E-Flat, BWV 525
; Two Chorale Preludes (from Orgelbüchlein)
 “Wenn Wir in höchsten Nöthen sein” and “O Mensch, bewein’ dein Sünde gross”; 
Cantata: “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, “BWV 1099.

Performers are Kendra Colton, soprano; 
Peggy Pearson, oboe; 
Rose Mary Harbison and Laura Burns, violin; 
Jen Paulson, viola; Karl Lavine, cello; Ross Gilliland, bass; and 
John Harbison, keyboard.

Here is a link to the Bach program and to the Token Creek Festival (click on More Info for the second link):

The hard-to-play oboe is one of The Ear’s favorite instruments, with its long singing lines and sweet tone. And few people play it better than Pearson.

Here is a resume of her distinguished career:

Peggy Pearson is a winner of the Pope Foundation Award for Outstanding Accomplishment in Music. Lloyd Schwartz, who received the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, called her “my favorite living oboist.”

Pearson gave her New York debut with soprano Dawn Upshaw in 1995, a program featuring the premiere of John Harbison’s “Chorale Cantata,” which was written specifically for them. A member of the Bach Aria Group,  Pearson is also solo oboist with the Emmanuel Chamber Orchestra, an organization that has performed the complete cycle of sacred cantatas by J. S. Bach.

According to Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe, “Peggy Pearson has probably played more Bach (below) than any other oboist of her generation; this is music she plays in a state of eloquent grace.”

Pearson is Artistic Director of, and oboist with the Winsor Music Chamber Series in Lexington, Massachusetts, and principal oboe with the Boston Philharmonic. She has toured internationally and recorded extensively with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and has appeared with the Boston Symphony Orchestra as principal oboist, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and Music from Marlboro.

Peggy Pearson has been an active exponent of contemporary music for many years. She was a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute in contemporary music, and has premiered numerous works, many of which were written specifically for her. She is featured on a recording of John Harbison’s music entitled “First Light,” with Dawn Upshaw and Lorraine Hunt. In addition, she has premiered and recorded Oboe Quartet by Fred Lerdahl, Quartet for Oboe and Strings by Yehudi Wyner, Quartetto for oboe and strings by Mario Davidovsky, John Harbison’s “Snow Country,” Peter Child’s Sonatina, and Ivan Tcherepnin’s “Flores Musicales.”

Peggy Pearson (below) recently gave an e-mail interview with The Well-Tempered Ear about her upcoming concerts at the Token Creek Festival:

Could you briefly tell us some background, including when and how you were first exposed to the music of Bach, both hearing it and performing it? Was there a special piece or performer that provided an Aha! moment about Bach?

Bach loved the oboe. I first played at Emmanuel Church with Craig Smith, John and Rosie, when I was 18. I was hooked, and I never stopped! There’s a story that my mom was pregnant with me when she was singing the B Minor Mass, so I’ve been hearing Bach for a long time.

Do the pieces you will play at Token Creek have special meaning for you? Is there a theme or unity or reason for choosing them? What is their place in the corpus of Bach’s work?

Several of the pieces we are performing are transcriptions of works for organ. I am always looking for compositions that are rarely heard: Bach’s trio sonatas are extremely difficult on the organ, and they are not performed very often. The chorale preludes are gems and work beautifully for oboe and strings.

Cantata BWV 199 “My Heart Swims in Blood” is an extraordinary work, and features our favorite soprano, Kendra Colton (below).

For you, what are the keys to a great Bach performance?

Clarity, passion and long lines.

What do you feel about period versus modern performances of Bach?

I prefer the modern oboe (bel0w). I experimented a bit with a period instrument, but found that the reeds are very different, and I just didn’t have the will to take them on.

This is your second appearance in as many years at the Token Creek Festival. Do you have reactions to the audiences, other musicians, Madison and the festival?

I love the performers and Token Creek’s devoted audience.

Is there something more you would like to say or would like readers and listeners to know about, you, Bach and Emmanuel Music of Boston?

One of our passions is to get the word out about one of our greatest composers. Young singers are not exposed to Bach; at the Bach Institute, we often find that a vocalist might know an aria from the “Magnificat” or one of the Passions. There is a wealth of music that is rarely studied or heard, and it is glorious music.

Posted in Classical music

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