What’s going on here? Two all-Bach programs were heard in the capital in one week, augmented by several Bach arias during a Duke recital. Well, the old master was – is – hard to beat, despite Thomas Beecham’s purported quip: “Too much counterpoint – and, what is worse, Protestant counterpoint.” Still, an historic instruments afternoon featuring chamber-sized versions of works that used to be played by much larger bands, followed just a week later by all three of the sonatas written for viola da gamba and harpsichord may tell us a few things, in the aggregate. For openers, it’s not the instruments but the artists that matter most – although the lower-pitched, less tense, softer and gentler sounds of the HIP (historically-informed performance) practitioners have a lot going for them in a smallish venue. And is there a more pliable composer, in the massive annals of Western art music, than Bach, whose music can be, with sufficient skill and conviction, be made to work in so many ways?
In the sanctuary of the Church of the Nativity, on Ray Road in North Raleigh, three cellists of the NC Symphony – Principal Bonnie Thron, Associate Principal Elizabeth Beilman, and Assistant Principal Peng Li – essayed the three sonatas that are assigned catalog numbers S.1027-9 and dated, somewhat tentatively, 1720 or thereabouts. Scholars are not sure about the dates, but it is known, as the artists explained to the sizeable audience, that the first of these sonatas exists as a trio sonata for two flutes and continuo (S.1039). (The Bach Edition catalog of 1950 states with certainty that the version for viola da gamba and harpsichord came later than S.1039.)
The three are not often heard together. Indeed, since the HIP movement kicked into high gear, they are not often heard at all, except by HIPsters. So it was a treat to have these artists team up with pianist James Good, a much-revered teacher and performer hereabouts, for this program, the first of three planned for this season, under the rubric “The Bach Cello Project.” The remaining concerts will offer the six suites for solo cello, with the first three scheduled for Christ Church on January 31 and the remaining works in the same venue on February 21.
The proposal for this series came from Li, who joined the NCS in the fall of 2008. He’s young but his resume is impressive. Beilman is a mature player with outstanding technical and artistic skills. So, too, is the brilliant leader of the NCS’ cello section, Bonnie Thron. Both Beilman and Thron are well known and highly admired for their work in chamber music in the community and beyond. The series thus has considerable promise, and much of that promise was realized in this opening program.
Li got things underway with the Sonata No. 1, in G. His remarks about the prominent role of the piano (a Schimmel, in this case) notwithstanding, the balance often seemed misjudged, so those who relish big cello tone were surely disappointed. Part of the reason for what came across to this listener as timidity on Li’s part must surely stem from Li’s attempt to treat his instrument as if it were a truly early one, despite his modern bow and modern strings. Thus the nod centered mostly on omitting the use of the end pin and some restrained playing. It was an experiment that didn’t serve the music particularly well in the context of the rest of the concert – but that said, the first is the sonata least likely to be heard in concert so it is less familiar than the other two.
Beilman and Good achieved better balance, thanks to the cellist’s stronger, more assured projection. The Sonata No. 2, in D, has a bit more to offer in terms of singing lines and depth of feeling, too, and the players made the most of it, particularly in the quite astonishing slow movement, the audience’s appreciation of which was significantly enhanced by pre-performance demonstrations.
After an intermission, Thron and Good turned to the Sonata No. 3, in G minor, the most modern of the three – it was, as Thron explained, influenced in altogether positive ways by the music of Vivaldi, and a joyous and happy thing it is, for sure. The performance was delightful, scaling the joys and plumbing the heartfelt reflective portions with equal skill.
There was a considerable uproar that elicited what Thron described as a “spontaneous” encore, an arrangement for three cellos and piano by Beilman’s other half – clarinetist and occasional stage-hand Jimmy Gilmore – of the aria “Schlafe können sicher weiden,” from the secular Cantata 208, written for the birthday of a prince who would be long forgotten but for this serene composition. (That the tune is so well known may be attributed, in part, to Leopold Stokowski’s stirring big-orchestra transcription.)
Check our calendar in late December for details of the next installment of this fine series of concerts, being presented under the banner “Spirituality In The Arts.” It’s a fact that Bach is the ideal composer for a series with that title.