Chamber Music Northwest review: back to Bach

After an unprecedented exploration of contemporary music, festival finale goes Bach to basics with the Brandenburg concertos

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

After five weeks of coffee talks and panel discussions, old new music, new new music, new old music, and old new music made new again, it was a relief to settle into familiar old Lincoln Hall for an evening of familiar old Johann Sebastian Bach. On July 30th, Chamber Music Northwest closed out its 47th season, gathering its motley cast of virtuosi for a well-balanced and thoroughly satisfying performance of all six of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

Before the music started, CMNW Artistic Director and clarinetist David Shifrin expressed his thanks to the performers, composers, audiences, donors, and sponsors, with “a very special thanks to J.S. Bach for organizing this program and gift-wrapping it for us.” Shifrin explained that the 20 musicians taking the stage that Sunday afternoon would be playing Bach’s music “just as he wrote it, except I will be playing the trumpet part on Eb clarinet, and the viola da gamba will be cello. We think he would like it this way.”

Chamber Music Northwest artistic director David Shifrin (front right) played clarinet in one of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. Photo: Tom Emerson.

I think we can make a case that: 1. Shifrin’s caveats notwithstanding, there are still deep aspects of this performance — intonation, instrument construction, venue acoustics, and so on — that are definitely not just as Bach wrote it; 2. That Bach’s music, like the plays of Shakespeare, seems to have some vital quality which allows it to be endlessly adapted and reinterpreted with what so far seems to be an inexhaustible variety of results.

Johann Sebastian Bach, for those who have not yet heard the Good News, has graduated from Mere Sainthood and become a God. It’s not that he’s The Greatest Classical Composer Ever, a point we could argue indefinitely (I don’t need to get into any more fist fights with Crazed Mozart Fiends and Deranged Brahms Enthusiasts, to say nothing of Apocalyptic Wagnerites.) It’s neither the musicological quality of Bach’s music, nor his entertainment value, nor his religious significance, nor his influence on other great composers, nor his melding of sacred, secular, dance, folk, court, and international musical styles, nor even his historical value at the crossroads of Medieval-Renaissance-Baroque musical philosophies at the dawn of the Modern Age. No, all of that is why he was sainted over the years by composers, musical theorists, performers, audiences, and, yes, critics. Bach’s music is simply grand, and I believe we all love at least some of it.

What makes Bach a God is simply his incorruptible immortality. Sainted performers who could have built their careers on anyone’s music did so on his (consider Casals and Gould). We all seem to have a visceral reaction, one way or another, to those infamous Stokowski orchestral arrangements, which many of us know from either Leonard Bernstein or Fantasia. Over the last century or so, Bach’s music has shown itself to be infinitely malleable, from the historically informed performances (and recordings, blessed be) of Trevor Pinnock, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and Jordi Savall to the reimaginings of The Swingle Singers, Wendy Carlos, and Handsome Boy Modeling School.

J.S. Bach statue in Leipzig.

The performance Shifrin and friends put on in Lincoln that Sunday afternoon was as close to Middle of the Road J.S. Bach as it gets. No period instruments, no well-tempered tuning, no synthesizers, nothing drastic. A harpsichord dominated the stage, and a violino piccolo made an appearance. The horns were valved, and the oboes, flutes, and bassoons were all modern. The conductorless ensemble observed mostly strict tempi and dynamics, playing with what my ear registered as “normal” vibrato—never too much, never too little. Again, nothing drastic. The show was nothing more, nothing less than a community of insanely skilled classical musicians closing a festival with some of the finest music ever written.

If it sounds like there was nothing special about this performance, that’s both a huge misunderstanding and kind of totally my point. The flip side of “you can do whatever you want with Bach’s music” is “but you don’t even need to, as long as you play it well.” The CMNW musicians turned in a perfectly balanced, impeccably executed performance, earnestly joyous, elegantly playful, studied and enthusiastic but not too serious (that is to say, “gay” in the Nietzschean sense.)

The almost two-hour concert was relaxing in the way only stimulating-but-familiar music can be. Some highlights:

  • Everybody on stage stood who could. During sections featuring the concertino soloists, the ripieno players would gracefully retire to chairs situated rather far off from their music stands. I couldn’t shake the image of basketball players returning to the bench after a successful play, resting up for the next tutti section.
  • Oregon Symphony principal John Cox and Imani composer Jeff Scott played the hell out of their horns, the first concerto’s bright triplets filling the room without overpowering the ensemble.

Jeffrey Grossman, Fred Sherry, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, Hamilton Cheifetz, Daniel Phillips and Camden Shaw were among 20 musicians performing all of the Brandenburgs. Photo: Tom Emerson.

  • Portland Baroque Orchestra principal bassist Curtis Daily sticking around for all six concerti (the only musician to do so), gracefully laying down the all-important harmonic foundation and enabling everyone else to sound great.

Flutists O’Connor (center) and Coleman (right) duetted in the fourth Brandenburg. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Bach wrote this music for his own ensemble (just like Papa Haydn, Duke Ellington, Missy Mazzoli, Michael Nyman, et al) and then adapted/collected the best of it into these six concerti as a sort of “sample catalogue” for a potential patron. If he were alive today there would be a concert DVD on his website. This music, written for performers Bach knew well, has become one of the dozen or so cornerstones our God contributed to classical music’s foundation. The Brandenburgs officially turn 300 in 2021, and the intervening centuries have enshrined this “good and perfect gift” on the hearts of countless composers, performers, theorists, and audiences. It’s hard to think of a more fitting season finale.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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