Bach abounds at Yellow Barn

Monday, July 9, 2012

David Weininger writes for The Boston Globe:

It’s a safe bet that, at any given moment, somewhere on this earth, J.S. Bach’s music is being performed, rehearsed, heard, studied, and contemplated. And that is not likely to change anytime soon — not that anyone seems to be complaining.

Even so, next weekend sees an unusual Bach convergence at New England summer music festivals. Friday, Yellow Barn, the music school and festival based in southeastern Vermont, begins a two-concert exploration of Bach’s six suites for solo cello. Then on Sunday, the American violinist Jennifer Koh fills an afternoon at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival with the six sonatas and partitas for solo violin. If you happen to be considering total immersion in Bach’s solo string works, the time is now.

The Yellow Barn shows are a tribute to the festival’s founder, cellist David Wells, who will turn 85 this month. “It’s an acknowledgment of David and what he’s done for this place,” said artistic director Seth Knopp. “And also of the special affinity he felt for those pieces.”

But the concerts are also unusual in that they divide up the movements of the suites among three of the festival’s cello faculty — Bonnie Hampton, Jean-Michel Fonteneau, and Natasha Brofsky — and students. It’s an arrangement that raises tangled questions about musical interpretation: how a number of musicians can create a unified reading of a piece, and whether they should even try.

“I’m a pianist who hears a lot of these suites at auditions, and I hear a lot of cellists playing them with completely different viewpoints,” said Knopp. “And I thought it might be a wonderful opportunity for them to share those viewpoints. I think there’ll be something of osmosis taking place as well.”

The suites, said Hampton, “are basic to our repertoire. They are unique.” For that reason, “cellists really want to add their insights and instincts to the suites, and be part of them.” But, she added, each suite has its own character, right down to its key. That acts as a check on performers’ flights of fancy. As Hampton put it, “I certainly want cellists to keep their own direction, but also get in the spirit of the particular suite they’re playing.”