Music review

A violinist’s Bach, shorn of the monumental

Johnny Gandelsman (pictured in 2013) gave a free show at MIT.
Johnny Gandelsman (pictured in 2013) gave a free show at MIT. Demetrius Freeman/New York Times/file

CAMBRIDGE — Of the many works for solo violin, Bach’s unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas seem to live on their own island: a student’s crucible, a serious listener’s gift, an artist’s Rorschach to which he or she returns over the many seasons of a life in music, finding new shapes and new meanings on every visit.

Just take a moment to consider the fact that this cycle was completed around 1720, but any complete performance still constitutes a genuine cultural event. If proof of this were needed, it came on Monday night. The setting was a hastily arranged free concert at MIT’s Killian Hall, a performance that was not on anyone’s calendars two weeks ago. But the room was packed, with extra seating added and an audience dotted with prominent Boston composers and performers.


The violinist they had come to hear was Johnny Gandelsman, a Moscow-born, Curtis-trained, New York-based musician with the background and technical gifts to have taken a conventional career path, maybe even as a soloist. But Gandelsman is also possessed of a restless creativity probably ill-suited to a life of traveling from city to city playing the Tchaikovsky concerto. I first heard him in the late 1990s as part of a gleefully irreverent chamber orchestra called Wild Ginger (a group whose freewheeling spirit has found its way into ensembles like the Knights and A Far Cry). As its concertmaster, Gandelsman played with a balletic lightness and a fancifully unbuttoned style not entirely unlike the way violinist Geoff Nuttall leads the St. Lawrence Quartet. Nowadays Gandelsman is one-quarter of the genre-bending chamber group Brooklyn Rider and a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s globally minded Silk Road Ensemble.

He has in other words taken the scenic route back to Bach, but he has arrived nonetheless and his approach seems richer for his many collaborations with musicians working in styles far beyond the Western classical tradition. Monday night’s impressive Bach marathon exuded a genial freshness and unaffected sincerity. The G-minor Presto was not a mad dash but a light-footed dance, the B-minor Courante full of phrases that sprung upward like a bouncing ball. Gandelsman even took a decidedly anti-monumental approach to the celebrated Chaconne. Where many players build sustained towers of tone and pathos, he favored lighter, glancing articulations of chords and arpeggiated passages, allowing the music’s power to build not through frontal force but through its play of light and shadows.


Gandelsman’s Bach appeared to grow only freer, his technique more frictionless, as the night progressed. Passages in the E-Major Partita were deftly sprinkled with ornamentation, catching the ear like the sparkle of mica on granite catches the eye. The evening’s few moments of blurred passagework hardly mattered; on offer seemed to be not Bach for the ages but Bach bracingly in the moment. A robust ovation drew a very short encore as musical joke, or perhaps as a nod to a certain cellist and Silk Road founder visibly beaming in an aisle seat: the opening gesture from the Third Cello Suite, tossed off like a folk fiddler.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.