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.”
In Rockport, the audience will have the contrary situation: all six of the violin works under the interpretive care of a single performer. This is still new territory for Koh, 35, who has played this music as a complete set only once before. “They seem like such intimate, private experiences, in a way,” said Koh, that it took her years of living with these pieces to overcome what she called “my fear of doing something so visceral and personal in such a public place.”
Koh spoke of these six works with a kind of awe — in part because, unlike the cantatas that Bach wrote for regular worship services, the sonatas and partitas seem not to have been composed as part of his professional duties. “There’s something intimate about this particular set, because it came out of the pure need to create,” she said. “When I look at it as a musician, it really seems like the journey of a lifetime.”
That last remark was not meant as a vague sentiment. Koh sees a spiritual arc that unfolds as the pieces are played in order, beginning with the first sonata and partita, both fairly conventional works in their genres. The transformation begins in the second sonata, especially in the slow third movement, a lament over a pulsing bass line that Koh likened to a heartbeat.
The second partita contains the massive chaconne, a series of variations over a repeated bass line that is one of Bach’s crowning achievements. That movement “is about reaching some point of understanding, reaching a force that’s greater than we are,” the violinist said. “That’s the spiritual core, the struggle to reach transcendence.”
The C major sonata that follows opens with a grave, even tragic slow movement and a fugue that is the longest and most complex in the set. Yet in the final two movements, the mood sweeps inexorably upward. “What’s absolutely incredible to me is that Bach ends the entire set with the E major partita,” Koh said. “If there’s any way to encapsulate the word joy in music, it’s the E major partita. You go through this entire journey and struggle, and you come to acceptance.”
Given the exhausting emotional voyage of the six works, it’s unsurprising that Koh hesitated before embarking on it. Her first experience playing them, at New York’s Academy of Arts and Letters last October, was “difficult psychologically, spiritually, mentally, physically — it was difficult in every sense. And yet it was the most satisfying thing I had ever done in my life.”
Preparing for that performance, Koh said, she didn’t leave her apartment for two weeks prior to the concert. It was not just a matter of building up stamina or making sure she was musically prepared. Rather, she had found the experience of living with these works so intense that “I had to be completely open. To the point that I felt like I didn’t have any skin on my body. . . . It’s like I was too sensitized to even be able to interact with the rest of the world.
“I think as human beings we are so vulnerable,” Koh went on. “But we’ve learned these protective tools. And what’s incredible to me about Bach’s music is that it reflects who we are as human beings, completely naked. . . . There’s no bravado. It’s so pure that it’s almost like you have to go back to the most vulnerable place of who you are as a human being.”