Saturday evening, November twenty-second, the former bank which is now the Kansas City Central Library hosted the fifteen-year-old Bach Aria Soloists and their guest Bach biographer, Dr. Christoph Wolff in the program: Bach Enlightened with Dr. Christoph Wolff. Several hundred people not only soaked up the four great performances of Johann Sebastian Bach, but heard from Dr. Wolff what Bach was trying to do and what he accomplished with his music other than notes on a page.
The first example was played by harpsichordist, Dr. Elisa Bickers, Toccata No. 1 in D dur, BWV 912. As realized on the harpsichord, it was a constant flurry of notes without the pace of the music seeming hurried. The decay of sound from this instrument is very fast, the flurry of passing tones and ornamentation does not speed the music, but keeps the sonority at a constant level. In the hands of a lesser musician, this piece might be an unintelligible set of notes rather than a carefully crafted set of melodies and counter-melodies.
Johann Sebastian Bach became an accomplished virtuoso at such a young age, that as an eighteen-year-old he was chosen to supervise a master builder’s construction of a pipe organ. He composed music of such difficulty that it challenged him, thus raising the level of achievement required for a musician to be considered skilled.
Founder and violinist, Elizabeth Suh Lane alternated with guitarist Beau Bledsoe, to play Bach’s “Partita No.1 in b minor for Unaccompanied Violin,” BWV 1002. By using double stops (two strings played simultaneously) and playing notes from a higher melody and then notes from a lower melody, Bach simulated two or more parts on a solo instrument. Again, the extraordinary performance skills to realize these slights of ear are rare; the accumulation of musicians who possess such musicianship is what has kept audiences intrigued enough to keep buying tickets and benefactors convinced of the value to the community to continue to provide support for fifteen years.
The new soprano, added this year, Sarah Tannehill Anderson, joined the other three members for four movements of Bach’s Cantata BWV 204, Ich bin in mir vergnügt . Bach’s demands on singers tended to either urge great study of the art, or to discourage the less skilled from asking to sing solos. His florid writing often requires a single syllable to continue for an entire page, with trills, other varied ornamentation, melodic sequences, and long-held tones that launch into these sections. When performed by artists such as Ms Tannehill, the results have no sound of labor, just light, earnest phrases, placed into the atmosphere to worship God, in most cases. The instruments serve to announce vocal melodies, emphasize certain key syllables without requiring the vocalist to scream, fill the harmony, run counter melodies to the voice, and to signify when a new section is about to begin with a delightful ritornello.
The final piece of the evening was Bach’s Sonata in G Major for violin and basso continuo BWV 1021, calling for the combined skills of Ms Lane and Dr. Bickers. The continuo part has the violin part and indications for the harmony (figured bass) with some additional guidance along the way, but much of the part must be improvised by the harpsichordist, in the Bach style. The effect of the harpsichord playing one or multiple contrapuntal melodies against the violin doing the same, is close to hearing a whole chamber orchestra. Movement III. Largo was particularly engaging; the sweet, slow melody meandered through the chamber while the keyboard continued at a rapid pace. but that did not distract to the slow pace, such is the magic of Bach.
Much of the topical information on these pieces came from Dr. Wolff’s commentary; he researched the source of Bach’s styles for his book, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, available from many booksellers. Bach Aria Soloists are in the midst of a fundraiser to support their worthwhile pursuits, seeking to raise $15,000 by the end of December.