Composer Wolfgang Rihm.
The Bach Effect
Teddy Abrams, Conductor
By Shaun Kenney
Entire contents are copyright © 2015 Shaun Kenney. All rights reserved.
I love a theme; a themed party, a collection of themed stories, or themed dinners all give you a context to better understand each individual element. I especially love a themed concert. In this performance Teddy Abrams and the Louisville Orchestra delivered just that.
Before I get to the music of the evening I would like to mention that this was the final classics concert for long time Concertmaster Michael Davis, as he is retiring after thirty years in the position. The concertmaster is someone that you certainly notice. They walk out on stage shortly before the performance begins and give the cue to the oboist to play the tuning note, first for the winds and then for the strings. The conductor shakes their hand before he or she raises the baton to give that first downbeat. They are a “leader among equals,” as quoted by Noah Bendix-Balgley, the concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic. Mr. Davis will be missed as much by the community as I’m sure he will be by his fellow musicians in the orchestra.
The works performed this evening were meant to show how the influence of J.S. Bach could be seen and heard in compositions from many different musical eras, including the modern day. The composers that were chosen for this representation were all German or Austrian. In between many of the selections Mr. Abrams did a wonderful job of illuminating how the “Bach Effect” would take form in the upcoming piece.
One of Bach’s greatest contributions to the musical world was the idea of counterpoint; two or more separate lines of music played together. These unique thoughts intermingle to create a sound that is not simply melody and supporting chords, but an aural tapestry woven together from several distinct themes. There were three selections that illustrated this perfectly. The first, Don Juan, a tone poem by Richard Strauss, opened the show. A tone poem or symphonic poem is the musical evocation of something non-musical, often a painting, short story, or in this case, a poem by Nicholas Lenau. The several themes of this work represent bravado, romance, sensuality, confidence, and ultimately death. The final work of the evening, Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C Major (“Jupiter”) was another excellent example of this influence. The fourth movement uses fugue or imitative counterpoint extensively and is one of Mozart’s greatest accomplishments. This particular performance was exceptional. The influence of counterpoint and fugue can even be seen in the compositions of 20th century composers as was exhibited in “Ragtime” from 1922, by Paul Hindemith. Hindemith uses a direct quote from Bach’s The Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1: Fugue No. 2 in C Minor but does so in the modern form of a march, a la John Philip Sousa. I had not heard this piece before and it was my favorite of the evening. It was quick and lively, yet complex and was a perfect selection for the theme.
There were other excellent examples of the influence of Bach. Sinfonia No. 5 in B Minor by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, J.S. Bach’s second surviving son showed us how the next generation used and expanded on the techniques of the great master. This featured the string section and Mr. Abrams on harpsichord, which I always find to be a treat. Richard Wagner’s Overture to the opera Tannhäuseropens with a choral, which Bach, used extensively in his oratorios.
The last two selections I’ll discuss were, in my opinion, also the most unique of the night. We heard two movements from J.S. Bach’s The Musical Offering, which were arranged by 20th century composer Anton Webern. The original work by Bach was composed as an improvisation on a twelve-tone theme. Twelve-tone compositions use all twelve notes of the chromatic scale equally as opposed to the typical seven notes of the major or minor scales. Webern transcribed this for orchestra, passing the melody around from section to section, forcing you to listen very closely for the melodic line. I enjoyed this very much as it made the audience become more of an active versus a passive listener.
Wolfgang Rihm is a winner of the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in music composition. He is paving the way for many modern composers, the way J.S. Bach did in his time. Nature Morte – Still Alive: Sketch for Thirteen Strings, was an extremely interesting piece of music. The players had to utilize many techniques and even acted as percussion instruments. I will say that though the sound of this work is not pleasant or melodic that doesn’t mean that it isn’t good. I found the performance to be intriguing and have downloaded a recording and listened to it several times since. Mr. Abrams asked the audience to Tweet him and let him know our thoughts about the end of the piece. I must say that I’m still mulling that over.
As is always the case I found the performances tonight to be outstanding. It is clear that Mr. Abrams knows his stuff and I appreciated the educational aspect of the performance. Good luck to Michael Davis in all of your future endeavors.
The Bach Effect
November 7, 2015
501 W. Main St
Louisville, KY 40202