The smell of autumn is in the air, heralding that “back to school” is just around the corner. September always signals a time of learning and new experiences. This year, I decided to up my “cultural quotient” by learning more about the music, instruments and the composers from the Baroque period. Two recent lunch time concerts at Christ Church Cathedral, part of Vancouver’s first Bach Festival, inspired my decision.
First was the Schübler Chorales featuring Organist, Ms. Christina Hutton and a vocal ensemble. The Schübler Chorales is a set of six short pieces bookended between a Prelude and Fugue which Bach wrote quite late in his life. In fact, Schübler was one of Bach’s students who became an important and well respected craftsman, very proficient at copper engraving. It was unusual at the time for Bach to have his music printed, so for Bach to reach out to one of the best copper engravers of the time to make these six short Cantatas into beautiful prints, they must have been very special indeed. The lighter musical style of these pieces is known as the Gallant style, and proven very influential for the next generation of German organ musicians as they attempted to emulate and compose in this style.
The final piece in the program was the Fugue in E Minor, one of the longest and technically demanding organ compositions by Bach. In her pre-concert talk, Ms. Hutton noted that Bach was known more as an organist rather than a composer, and his music is central to any organists’ repertoire. For example, Bach was the first organist to use the pedal board in an obligato fashion, i.e. the part you play with the pedal has its own separate melody line in the music; therefore, one needs to be much more agile with one’s feet to play Bach. Also, due to the technical complexity of the music, one must focus 100% while playing. “He can write things that are extremely difficult, but he knew exactly what the human body is capable of – so it’s still possible, rather than just hopeless”.
The second concert was the Sonatas and Partitas which featured Ms. Tekla Cunningham on Violin, Ms. Soile Stratkauskas on flute and Ms. Christina Hutton on Harpsichord.
I was totally mesmerized by the beautiful sound of the baroque flute in the Sonata in E Minor. The baroque flute is lighter than the modern flute and has a more intimate and speech like quality. Also, the fact that it does not have keys makes it easier to play faster passages – when I close my eyes, I see butterflies darting back and forth over a field of blossoms.
The harpsichord played by Ms. Hutton was an 18th century instrument recently donated to Early Music Vancouver. It is a French harpsichord, noted for its silvery tonal quality which works well with the music of Bach. In comparison, the heavily built German harpsichords are prized for their singing quality while the Italian harpsichords are brilliant and fiery. To select the appropriate instrument for each type of music, is one of the harpsichordist’s notable skills.
The final performance of that afternoon was the deeply moving Partita No. 2 in D minor by violinist Ms. Tekla Cunningham. While Bach was travelling, his beloved wife tragically passed away; in his grief, he wrote this moving and powerful composition that symbolizes life’s journey. Many violinists study this piece as their lifelong practice to perfect this musical masterpiece.
The instrument Ms. Cunningham played was a baroque violin with an unusual one piece back which was handcrafted in Venice in 1746 by violin maker, Sanctus Seraphin. Interestingly, many of the violins we see on stage today were actually made in the 17th century; however, as concert halls became larger and larger, most have been modified to project more volume while compensating for the sweetness of the sound.
A noon time concert is the perfect way to refresh a long work day. Emerging into the bright sunshine from the cool tranquility of the church, I am filled with the beauty of the Bach melodies created more than 300 hundred years ago transcending time and place.
Early Music Vancouver starts their new season in September with a stellar line-up. What better way to bring some beauty and joy into your life than escaping into music from our past. For subscription to the new season of Early Music Vancouver, please visit their website: www.earlymusic.bc.ca