Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bach in Marsh Chapel

Yesterday, I attended a really interesting lecture recital in Marsh Chapel at Boston University. It was given by Emily Rideout and it covered various movements from JS Bach's cantatas and focused on the use of the viola as an obbligato instrument in those cantatas. It was a really fascinating project that I think deserves some attention amongst violists and Bach scholars.

I feel like her basic argument was that Bach, more than anything, was a pragmatist. In the likely event that an oboe da caccia, a violetta, a viola da gamba, or some other exotic instrument was not available, chances are that Bach himself or a friend might have stepped in and played the obbligato accompaniment on the viola, which was more common at the time. Why not? The parts would have been written in the same clef and covered the same approximate range of notes, so it could be played with ease by the viola as the "understudy." In fact, Emily pointed out that there are already some existing transcriptions for the viola in Bach's own hand of a couple of different obbligato parts from various cantata arias. Heckfire, violists don't have much music to play anyway, so I say let them have their fun!

Emily gave a lovely performance after the lecture portion of the concert. She brought friends too: three singers and a steady continuo group. Allen Combs, tenor, had the biggest role of the afternoon with three arias, all sung in a light style that seemed to favor a dance-like interpretation of Bach's music. His "Ergiesse dich reichlich" from BWV 5 was convincing and solidly delivered. I know how tricky this aria is because Dan and I performed it at his brother's wedding a few years ago. I played the tenor voice part on the oboe, and it's a bear to get through the long melismas even on the oboe. PS - for oboists and violists: if you're looking for a companion piece to the Loeffler Rhapsodies, this aria from BWV 5 works rather well as a transcription and showcases the virtuosity of both instruments.

Sonja Tengblad and Emily Marvosh both sang with a beautiful clear lovely tone again favoring a lighter style that put a pleasant sway into the music. Emily played the concert with a baroque bow, which gave her a fine featherweight viola sound that I thought worked very well for the music she was performing. She also managed the numerous difficult string-crossings and shifts quite nicely in what must be a collection of awkward pieces. Bach's writing often is stunningly beautiful, but incredibly awkward in execution for the performer. I've always admired Emily's interpretation of Bach since I heard her play the D major suite (originally for cello) several years ago. She obviously has a real passion for the composer's works. All in all, the afternoon's concert was a pleasant contrast to the usual thick and soupy playing that most people give when playing Bach. It was a lovely afternoon spent in Boston University's gorgeous Marsh Chapel.

I'll leave you with my favorite quote from one of the hand-outs that was supplied to us at the concert:
"The voice can be a little rough, that's what the viola offers - however, one who knows the viola will find it enjoyable; a piece of music will be more noble and well-loved if the well-suited tone of the viola supports it. Rome- the mother city of musicians and artists - elevates my instrument and calls it beautiful..." - from Bach's Instrumentation by Ulrich Prinz

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