“Bach is a composer that can withstand interpretation.”
—Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic Media Briefing February 22, 2012
Readers of these pages are already aware that at the New York Philharmonic’s Media Briefing on February 22, it was officially announced that Christopher Rouse has been named the orchestra’s new composer-in-residence. But another announcement from that same briefing has been occupying my mind ever since. The Philharmonic announced a partnership with New York City’s 92nd Street Y on a series called The Bach Variations as part of a major initiative to “reclaim” the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The word “reclaim” seems to me to be a particularly unfortunate vocabulary choice for a variety of reasons.
While I spend virtually all of my concert going activity focused on performances featuring new music, and most of the in person experience I have with older repertoire is as a result of said repertoire appearing on the same program as a new work, I truly love older music and actually devote a great deal of time to listening to it at home. Over the course of a couple of years I systematically began every Sunday morning’s listening activities with a Bach Cantata and eventually got through all of them. (There are more than 200.) I was delighted to read a post a couple of weeks ago here by Dan Visconti in which he gave detailed accounts of listening to works by Mozart and Beethoven, since I’m currently engaged in a similar systematic listening to all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas. While this might seem inexplicable given my visceral antipathy to “Beethoven Awareness Month”, my immersion in this repertoire comes from a very different impetus than the Great Man theory.
I love to listen to (as well as look at or read) clusters of related things in order to glean a better understanding of form and process. I’ve attempted to look at every painting (at least in reproduction) by Vermeer (relatively easy) and Claude Monet (a much taller order) and have gone on reading binges where I’ve read every novel by Herman Melville. I’m still trying to get through everything ever written by Gertrude Stein. And I have engaged in similar listening marathons with many kinds of music—from listening to every session the Duke Ellington Orchestra recorded for RCA to every song recorded by Bessie Smith, every original cast album of a Broadway show scored by Jule Styne, every song by Bob Marley, every album by The Beatles, King Crimson, Sonic Youth, and hosts of other groups, and (I’m still in progress since the recording project, 40 CDs released to date, has not yet been completed) everything composed for keyboard (both solo and with orchestra) by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (now that’s a Bach who needs to be “reclaimed”). For these in-depth encounters, I’m also frequently drawn to people who are less well known. When I was in Norway back in October, I was delighted to acquire the complete solo piano music of Agathe Backer-Grøndahl (1847-1907) and my subsequent immersion into the five hours of her music was utterly fascinating. When it’s always the same folks all the time, it’s usually not all that exciting and frequently just seems perfunctory.
That said, Johann Sebastian Bach’s oeuvre has been an integral part of my regular listening diet for many years, just not in the way that his music will be performed at the 92nd Street Y and Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. But I was not always such a devoted fan. My earliest exposure to his music (as well as that of Mozart and Beethoven) was extremely underwhelming. When I was in seventh grade, I attended some free opera performances in New York City’s Central Park and as a result became interested in learning more about opera and classical music in general, so I picked up a copy of a collection of composer biographies at a flea market. The first composer listed in the book was Johann Sebastian Bach, so I thought I ought to find out more about him. Soon thereafter thanks to TV Guide, one of the only magazines I had regular access to back then, I learned that Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was going to be broadcast on my local public television station, so I tuned in. It was a performance with a large orchestra and a giant chorus. It should have overwhelmed me, but instead it completely bored me. It was not until I discovered how that music sounded on so-called “period instruments” that I became truly passionate about it. The same actually holds true for the music of Mozart, Beethoven, and even Schubert, whose “Great” Symphony (No. 9) seemed more bloated than great until I heard it performed by the Hanover Band. The clarity of pure-toned voices and gut strings, the imperfect intonation of pre-Boehm winds and non-valved brass, plus the fragility and crisper timbres of the harpsichord and other early keyboard instruments combine to create a magical sound world that keeps me attuned to every detail in the music as I’m hearing it. Discovering this music on these instruments is what finally made me appreciate music from earlier centuries. Before I realized it could sound like this, contemporary performance of “classical music” seemed less about discovery and more about an obligation to perpetuate a legacy. After all, the so-called “modern instruments” that became the tools for standard classical music performance practice were not as modern as the electric guitars and synthesizers that I grew up with.
So to boast of returning this music to those previously entrenched performance practices, which were codified sometime in the 20th century, a time that is receding deeper and deeper into our history and collective consciousness, feels downright reactionary and regressive. Bach is doing fine without being rescued by the New York Philharmonic. For $400, less than the price of a pair of tickets to attend all of the offerings at Lincoln Center and the 92nd Street Y, you can actually acquire Teldec’s 153-CD box containing Bach’s complete output performed on period instruments. Getting through all of that one time around requires an entire week without sleep, so it could take a lifetime if you spaced it out a bit more.
At the New York Philharmonic’s Media Briefing, Alan Gilbert claimed that one of the hallmarks of Bach’s greatness is that his music sounds great no matter what instruments it is played on or how it is played. I’m not sure that’s true for Bach, or any other composer for that matter. To my ears and the ears of many of my contemporaries (which were reared on and are still saturated with constant exposure to meticulously crafted studio recordings of pop music), timbre and tone quality are just as crucial to a piece of music’s identity as its melody, harmony, and rhythm. The so-called “modern orchestra” provides an amazing array of sonic possibilities, but it is not the only set of possibilities. There is however a vast body of repertoire that has been tailor made to explore it, much of it undeservedly under-programmed, and that’s what they should be championing. While I’m thrilled that the New York Philharmonic announced performances of Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony next season, why not program a complete Ives cycle? This is music that is every bit as profound as Beethoven, whose symphonies get recycled every year on these “modern” instruments. What about doing a cycle of the remarkable symphonies of William Schuman, whose centenary in 2010 went virtually un-noticed in most of the halls at Lincoln Center, an entity he actually helped to create? And how about filling the most frustrating performance lacuna, both at the New York Philharmonic and at most orchestras across America, by programming something to celebrate the centenary of John Cage whose extraordinary orchestra music could make us all better listeners?