Three concerts of Bach’s music turn February into a ‘Bachanal’
Johann Sebastian Bach is famous for his innovative, beautiful and technically difficult pieces for orchestral ensembles and keyboard instruments. He also played the violin and wrote all kinds of solo works, including six suites for unaccompanied cello, which are still considered Mount Everest for the instrument. In addition, his cantatas for choir, soloists and orchestra are still among the greatest achievements for oratorios.
Over the coming weeks, concert-goers can hear all of Bach’s “cello suites” performed by Alisa Weilerstein in a Chamber Music Northwest performance (February 4) and the first four suites by cellists of the Portland Baroque Orchestra (February 19). Between the cello concerts is the aptly named Sunday show Super Bach (February 12) featuring the Bach Cantata Choir for choir fans to enjoy before the Super Bowl game.
Since making her professional debut in 1995 at age 13 with the Cleveland Orchestra and her Carnegie Hall debut two years later, Weilerstein has toured internationally, recorded extensively and received a MacArthur “Genius” grant.
“Bach’s ‘cello suites’ are viewed by cellists as the cello’s bible,” Weilerstein said in a Zoom call. “It was there that modern cello playing began. Even though Bach didn’t play the cello, he transcended the instrument with this music.”
Weilerstein will perform all six cello suites in one concert. This usually takes more than two and a half hours – not counting the break. Weilerstein first completed the full marathon in concert in 2016 and recorded them on the Pentatone label in 2020.
“I see the complete suites as a journey through life,” says Weilerstein. “The first suite is childhood. It is very pure, innocent and optimistic. The second is puberty – full of fear and darkness – kind of a tormented character and also very erratic. The third suite is reminiscent of the heyday. It’s very regal and confident. It has the optimism of a young adult ready to take on the world. The fourth suite is in the midst of life – more wondrous and complex. This is where things take a turn and get more interesting and complicated. The fifth suite is tragic, desolate, devastated, lonely, isolated. The sixth suite is by far the longest – almost twice as long as the first suite – expressing experience, learned wisdom.”
Weilerstein noted their subjective perspective on the suites.
“It’s almost like they can’t be played, but they have to be played,” she said. “You can play them two months later and they will be different. That’s okay. There is no interpretation of the suites.”
Tanya Tomkins of the Portland Baroque Orchestra feels similarly about the Bach cello suites, which she will play with three colleagues on baroque-era cellos.
“The pieces are a real journey,” said Tomkins. “You never play them the same way twice. I’ve played them all at several venues including the Library of Congress and recorded them for Avie Records. But I always want to start over and play them differently.”
For the PBO concert, Tomkins split the first four suites with Adaiha MacAdam-Somer, Annabeth Shirley and Joanna Blendulf.
“I like the idea of different people playing the suites because everyone has a different take on it,” Tomkins said. “It’s hard for me to choose a favourite. I am honored to play one of these pieces. I love the first because it’s so upbeat, welcoming, and upbeat – a joyful way to start the journey.”
Tomkins loves the natural, innate feel of the suites.
“Bach’s cello pieces make the best use of the instrument,” she remarked. “He really got it with the keys and the open strings and how we make the instrument vibrate.”
Bach was influenced by other composers, Tomkins said.
“The Italians brought the violin and cello into a more solo form,” she said. “Bach always looked around to see what other people were doing. But he would write for the first time a chaconne that would blow everyone else’s mind. He did the same with French music. He decided he could contribute, and here is his tiny contribution. It was amazing! It was crazy what he could do!”
Bach lovers can start the big day with a sonic bang at the Bach Cantata Choir’s Super Bach Sunday Concert.
“We’ve been doing Super Bach Sunday since we started,” said Ralph Nelson, the choir’s artistic director, “and we’re now in our 17th season. It’s our most popular concert every year. We sing a lot of happy and funny works, which is the opposite of what some people think about Bach’s music. We’ll bring out trumpets and drums and make a big celebration out of it.”
The 50-part choir will be accompanied by soloists and a chamber orchestra to perform Bach’s Cantata No. 43 “Gott ist auffahr mit ein Jubel” and other works from the Baroque period.
“The concert will feature four composers who have worked at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, but not at the same time,” added Nelson. “Bach was music director there from 1723 to 1750. He wrote many of his greatest choral pieces there. But he was just one in a long line of talented German musicians.”
The program includes Johann Hermann Schein’s “Now we all thank our God”, Johann Schelle’s “Make the door wide” and Johann Kuhnau’s “The sky from above is rejoicing”. All three preceded Bach in the Thomaskirche.
“Johann Kuhnau knew Bach and they were pretty good friends,” Nelson said. “When Kuhnau died, the leaders in Leipzig put forward candidates for his successor, and Bach came in third place behind Georg Philipp Telemann and Christoph Graupner. But Telemann got a better-paying job, and Graupner didn’t get out of his contract. The Leipzig city administration wrote that they had to “reluctantly” discontinue their third choice, JS Bach! The joke today is that Telemann and Graupner weren’t hired because their first names weren’t Johann.”
Alisa Weilerstein: The Complete Bach Cello Suites – Saturday, February 4, 6 p.m., First Baptist Church, 909 SW 11th Ave.; $45-$75 (additional discounts for under 30s and under 18s), cmnw.org.
Bach Cantata Choir: Super Bach Sunday – 2:00 p.m. Sunday, February 12, Rose City Park Presbyterian Church 1907 NE 45th Ave.; free, bachkantatachoir.org.
Portland Baroque Orchestra: Bach’s Cello Suites – Sunday 19 February, 3pm, Kaul Auditorium, Reed College; $35-$66, pbo.org.
– James Bash