Times Union: Classnotes: Six degrees of fresh Bach appreciation

November 18, 2019

Ask any cellist and they’ll have a unique insight or personal story about the six suites for unaccompanied cello by J.S. Bach. A few years ago Ashley Bathgate paid a special homage by commissioning six composers to write a new suite inspired by the material. The set is named “Ash” and Bathgate has been touring with the material over the last three years, including a 2017 recital at The Egg. A recording of the full set was just released by New Amsterdam Records.

Bathgate, a native of Saratoga Springs and alum of the Empire State Youth Orchestra, has become a force in the contemporary music world since she joined the Bang On A Can All Stars in 2009. She probably knows a legion of composers by this point. Rather than cherry-picking a handful of them for a Bach project, she teamed up with the Sleeping Giant composer collective. There are probably local listeners who have still not gotten over Sleeping Giant’s “Requiem Reimagined,” a daring tribute to Mozart performed by the Albany Symphony in 2015.

The bond among the Sleeping Giant composers is admirable but also rather curious since they don’t all write the same kind of music. There’s practically no continuity from track to track on the new disc. For that matter, not a lot of the music explicitly resembles Bach. That being said, each piece is grounded in a strong concept and Bathgate brings beauty and conviction to it all.

Fast rocking arpeggios, part Bach and part minimalist, are the rule in Andrew Norman’s “For Ashley,” a lively essay full of tricky rhythms and quick changing articulations. Timo Andres’ “Small Wonder” is a more wide ranging romp with shifting tone colors and a quirky additive form.

Jacob Cooper’s “Ley Line” digs in for a gritty fast sound that’s both hypnotic and exhausting. At the opposite extreme there’s the long meditative tones of Robert Honstein’s “Orison,” inspired by having once heard Rostropovich play Bach in the vast expanse of a cathedral. Electronic reverb recreates those long decays and infuses the piece with a reverent calm.

Chris Cerrone’s “On Being Wrong” is the most restless and intense piece in the suite. Electronic overdubbing builds up layers upon layers of cello sounds. The surging tremolo effects evoked images of driving a winding road during the dark of night and at high speeds.

Finally, Ted Hearne’s “DaVZ23BzMH0” comes off as a weird outlier, at least initially. On repeated listening it becomes rather eloquent and even poignant. The central device is that random samples of cheap ’90s instrumental pop are triggered by the cello. Somehow the jangly slow rock and the sustained cello sounds weave a sweet duet. One kind of music frames another.

The more I listen to “Ash,” the more cool the whole thing feels. What holds it all together is Bathgate’s terrific playing.

Haimovitz joins Bach Workshop

Matt Haimovitz has been named the new artistic director of the Bach Cello Suites Workshop, succeeding Zuill Bailey who was with the program since it started in 2014.

The one of a kind workshop allows adult amateur cellists to study and perform these cornerstones of the cello repertoire. Marc Violette and Margaret Lanoue conceived of the program and manage it. The next session runs July 26 to August 1, 2020 at the College of St. Rose.

Haimovitz, who performs frequently in our region, has twice recorded the Bach suites. Known as an adventurous musician, he has also created and recorded a set of companion pieces. His “Overtures to Bach,” features commissioned pieces by Philip Glass, Du Yun, Vijay Iyer, Roberto Sierra, David Sanford and Luna Pearl Woolf.

“In the divisive world we find ourselves navigating, the Bach Cello Suites continue to anchor all of us in the celebration of beauty, spirituality, and a peace earned through an embrace of humanity’s communal ideals,” said Haimovitz in a statement.

The Bach Cello Suites Workshop is also producing a special concert celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Bach Suites, coming up on March 7 at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. The details are still coming together but here’s what we know so far. There will be three headline cellists: Matt Haimovitz, Ashley Bathgate and Mike Block (of the Silk Road Ensemble). Also in store is a world work with the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company. More info at: bachcellosuitesworkshop.org.

Outreach from the Friends of Chamber Music

There are six ensembles on the bill for the Friends of Chamber Music this season – but 12 events will be happening. The series is now in its 71st year of presenting concerts in Kiggins Hall at the Emma Willard School in Troy. New this year is that each group on the schedule will also give some kind of outreach event in the community.

Things got started with the Kenari Quartet, which performed works for saxophone quartet on October 12. The group also gave a workshop for students in ESYO’s Chime program.

The next ensemble coming to town is the Aizuri Quartet, whose tour of the Northeast will have already brought them to the Buffalo Chamber Music Society and Williams College in The Berkshires. Their first Capital Region performance will be at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy at 5:30 p.m. Friday. Admission is free. After that, they’ll appear at the Emma Willard School at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

The all-female Aizuri is widely recognized for a commitment to contemporary music. Their 2018 album “Blueprinting” presented works by five American composers and was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of best chamber music performance.

One piece from that album, “Carrot Revolution” by Gabriella Smith, will be included on the upcoming concert. But the balance of the program is more traditional, with a set of Armenian folks songs plus Haydn’s String Quartet in B Minor Op. 64, No. 2 and Sibelius’s “Voces Intimae.” More info at: friendsofchambermusic.org.

Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.

BY: Joseph Dalton
READ AT: Times Union

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