Tag Archives: Bach

Singing Bach’s “St. John Passion” in English

This weekend saw a culmination of an exciting project taken on by the Crouch End Festival Chorus, of which I am a member. Last August, the chorus recorded Bach’s St. John Passion (SJP) in English for the first time in 45 years. Alas, I wasn’t part of the recording, but I had the privilege of performing the piece with the choir this weekend in St. John’s Smith Square, a concert that coincided with Chandos’ release of the CD.

First, some background and thoughts on language: as you may know, Bach’s St. John Passion was originally written in German. It’s a magnificent oratorio, musically and dramatically. So why bother translating it into English?

As our music director David tells it, he saw a performance of SJP in English a few years ago and was at first scornful, being someone (like myself) who prefers pieces to be sung in their original language. But David said that hearing SJP being sung in English brought him much closer to the story and moved him in ways that the German version didn’t…because he could understand the words!

Sunlight streams over music. Yes, we were told to write “turbo charge” in our scores. I had to cross out some of the German so I wouldn’t sing in the wrong language.

In last night’s pre-concert chat, translator Neil Jenkins argued that the Bach Passions are acts of worship: they are, after all, oratorios set to Biblical texts about the Passion of Christ and thus often performed in the run-up to Easter. Jenkins made a similar remark to David’s revelation, in that hearing SJP in English brings the audience closer to the text and thus allows the audience to better perform the act of worship. The Bach Camerata’s lead cellist, also on the pre-concert chat panel, noted that for her and the other instrumentalists, hearing the choir sing in English allows the orchestra to add extra feeling in the right places — again, because they can understand the words. Jenkins talked about earlier English translations of SJP and how they tried to stick to literal translations from the German and the Bible’s actual words; but this meant that some words and phrases felt and sounded awkward to sing. In his translation, Jenkins made a point of retaining the meaning but also choosing words with comfortable vowels for the singers (thank you!).

Pre-Concert chat with Neil Jenkins (translator), David, and the Bach Camerata’s lead cellist/founder.

While I was initially skeptical of singing SJP in English, being a proponent of singing in the original language, I must admit that I got a lot out of the piece. Although I do speak German, it was exciting to experience the SJP’s story unfold in my native language and feel the immediate effects of the drama. It was also brilliant to sing with the Bach Camerata again; they are a fantastic period-instrument ensemble, complete with funny-looking wind instruments and a beautiful viola da gamba.

In rehearsals for this concert, the texts of the choruses sounded a bit random on their own. When we got to the dress rehearsal and concert at St. John’s Smith Square, though, everything came together with the addition of the soloists, led by Robert Murray as the Evangelist, or narrator, of the drama. The choir, I realized, acts many parts throughout the oratorio: the crowds of Jews, the priests, and the contemporary (in Bach’s time or ours) congregation commenting on the action. Despite not being a believer, I found some parts of the SJP quite moving.

Overall, the concert went well and the audience was enthusiastic; choir members in the audience gave us good marks for our diction. We had brilliant soloists in Murray along with Andrew Ashwin as Christ, Grace Davidson (soprano), Robin Blaze (countertenor), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), and Ben Davies (bass). Some of the soloists, along with the Bach Camerata, are also on the recording that just came out.

I could go on, but I’ll let you read David’s blog post for more and send you to buy the CD here or here if you are interested. Thanks for reading!

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Concert Review: Steven Isserlis at Wigmore Hall

F and I got £5 tickets — if you’re under 35, check out the scheme — to see cellist Steven Isserlis at Wigmore Hall in London last week. I had seen Isserlis, a fellow Oberlin graduate, perform in the Oberlin Artist Recital Series back in 2008 or so. It remains one of the most memorable concerts I attended during my four years at Oberlin — and I went to a lot of concerts — so I jumped at the chance to see Isserlis perform again. Here is my review of his concert at Wigmore Hall.

Isserlis’ program at Wigmore Hall included three of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites — No. 1 in G major (BWV1007), No. 5 in C minor (BWV1011), and No. 4 in Eb major (BWV1010) — interspersed with Signs, Games and Messages — short, fragmentary pieces by 90-year-old Hungarian composer György Kurtág.

Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 is probably the best-known of the cello suites, especially its characteristic Prelude. Isserlis opened the concert with this suite, although he played it a bit fast for my taste and it felt rushed. He followed this with two movements from Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages before flowing directly into Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5. The Kurtág pieces were short, fun, and playful; they reminded me of Penderecki solo string pieces, such as the Divertimento for cello. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 is one of my favorites — I’m a sucker for C minor — and Isserlis gave a gorgeous and moving performance of it, drawing a rich tone from his cello’s gut strings and letting the music dance in the faster movements.

After the interval, Isserlis played three more short Kurtág pieces — one of which drew a laugh from the audience as Isserlis glanced up with his characteristic impish look — before transitioning immediately into Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4. The audience was rapt by the time Isserlis got to the slow Sarabande, which he played with such feeling and emotional depth that even he seemed to tear up. The Sarabande’s gravity contrasted well with the playful last movement (Gigue).

Isserlis took three or four bows before settling down for an encore with another joyful movement from another Bach Cello Suites. Isserlis is a great performer to watch, as he so clearly feels the music and adapts his character to it without being distracting. He played all three Bach Cello Suites from memory and with such poise that the music seemed to flow out of him. He periodically glances at the audience with a half-smile, as if letting us in on a private joke.

It was a stunning concert. If you ever get the chance to see Isserlis play, do it. F said it’s the best classical music concert he has ever been to; his mind was sufficiently boggled. We talked about Bach’s genius: his music sounds so simple but is actually very difficult to play or sing (as I know well from recently tackling the Mass in B minor) and requires flawless technique and command.

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Singing Bach’s “Mass in B Minor”

Design: John Featherstone. Copy: Rachel Yarham

Design: John Featherstone. Copy: Rachel Yarham

It was a long, hard slog to the Barbican Hall to perform J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor (BWV 232) as part of the Crouch End Festival Chorus. The Mass in B minor (completed in 1749) is a piece of epic proportions — it’s almost two hours long and requires the utmost concentration to keep up with the tricky rhythms, runs, and fugues.

Although I had never sung Bach’s Mass in B minor before, I was familiar with bits of it from listening to recordings over the years. It is a glorious piece. When you listen, it doesn’t sound all that complex because the melodies and harmonies are so pleasing and hummable; however, singing it is another matter! I was forewarned, as my good friend Emma sang the piece with her choir in Boston last year and told me how difficult it was. What I wasn’t prepared for was the non-logical placement of words and syllables on unexpected beats. Learning Bach, I soon figured out, requires the ability to quickly recognize patterns and repeat them at different pitches. Once I understood that, it made many bits of the music easier to learn (multiple sectional rehearsals to “note bash” were also helpful).

To add another degree of complexity (particularly for those singers with perfect pitch), we sang our Mass in B minor in Baroque pitch, which is half a step lower than today’s standard pitch used by most orchestras. Our orchestra for the Mass in B minor, though, was the Bach Camerata, a period instrument ensemble complete with strings, old-school oboes, wooden flutes (they sound beautiful — sort of a cross between a modern flute and a recorder), and horns with no keys (amazing that the musicians can control all the pitches with their embouchures).

Concert day brought the usual marathon afternoon rehearsal, which is always brightened by the fact that it’s the first time we (the chorus) get to see the orchestra and soloists. They did not disappoint. I was captivated from the first duet, “Christe eleison,” between soprano Mary Bevan (whom F and I saw in the ENO’s Mikado last fall) and mezzo-soprano Diana Moore. Moore’s “Agnus Dei” at the end of the piece was also breathtaking. Callum Thorpe delivered resonant bass solos and Ben Johnson‘s tenor was in good form. The Bach Camerata was a joy to listen to and sing with; I was particularly impressed by the two flute players and the accuracy and articulation of the entire ensemble.

By many audience accounts, we pulled off a great performance. The Mass in B minor is exhausting to perform — and probably to listen to — but early reviews and comments point to a success. Our director, DT, certainly seemed really pleased after the first half. It a great experience to learn Bach’s Mass in B minor; I’m glad to have done it, but as a fellow singer pointed out, also glad to move onto the next challenge.

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Concert Review: London Philharmonic Orchestra with David Zinman & Emanuel Ax

Sarah accompanied me to this London Philharmonic Orchestra concert, for which I again scored £4 student tickets. The concert, on 19 March, was conducted by David Zinman and featured Emanuel Ax on the piano. [N.B.: David Zinman conducted the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra early in his career — I grew up in the Rochester house he lived in!]

The LPO concert, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, opened with one of Mozart’s late symphonies: No. 38 in D major, K. 504 (“Prague”). It’s called the “Prague” symphony because that’s where it was premiered in 1786. The three-movement symphony is a lovely piece — very “Mozartian” and pleasant to listen to, with glimpses of his late-style minor chords and introspection. As the concert opener, the symphony provided a great introduction to David Zinman’s conducting style: he is the subtlest conductor I have ever seen. A small, amiable-looking 77-year-old (!), Zinman conducts with gentle, non-distracting gestures — at one point during the Mozart, he completely stopped conducting, letting the orchestra carry themselves, until he took up the baton again for a cue. I loved watching him smile over to the first violins when cueing them. Such a kind-looking little man — and it was clear from the next two pieces that he and Emanuel Ax have much affection for each other.

Ax made his first appearance for Richard Strauss’ Burleske in D minor for piano and orchestra. I didn’t know this piece before the concert, but the performance made me want to hear it again. It has typical Straussian harmonic layers and hints of lush Romanticism in many of the piano’s lively passages. Most impressive were Ax’s cadenza and his superb call-and-response dialogues with the timpani and first flute at various points throughout the piece. Ax is fun to watch — we were close enough to see his mouth moving along to the music; during rests he would turn to watch the orchestra, clearly reveling in the wonderful music they were all making.

David Zinman and Emanuel Ax with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (photo credit: Sarah)

David Zinman and Emanuel Ax with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (photo credit: Sarah)

After the interval, Ax returned to the piano for a piece written some 150 years before the Strauss: Bach’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052 — one of the major precursors to the modern piano concerto, according to the program notes. Now I love Bach, and this piece was fun as always, but I found the balance to be slightly off — the grand piano, played with what I thought was a bit too much pedal for Bach, often overpowered the small string orchestra. Maybe that’s just because of where we were sitting — in the center of the fifth row — too close, in retrospect. Ax’s technical skill certainly cannot be doubted, and he plays with wonderful feeling.

The final piece brought us back to the late 19th century: Richard Strauss’ tone poem, Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration”), Op. 24, which was premiered at the same concert as the Burleske we heard in the concert’s first half. I was looking forward to this piece, because I learned when we studied Tristan und Isolde in one of my MA classes that Strauss had in mind the (in)famous “Tristan Chord” from Wagner’s music drama when he was composing Tod und Verklärung. I did recognize glimmers of Wagnerian harmony throughout the piece, which is a vast, sweeping tone poem worth listening to if only for the haunting opening and breathtaking ending, which imparts a feeling of suspension with a bit of longing — the “transfiguration” or “transcendence” of the title, perhaps. Here’s a recording of Zinman conducting the piece with his “home” orchestra, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich:

Throughout the concert Zinman — as subtle as ever — drew a magnificent, full sound from the LPO, particularly from the low strings, timpani, and horns. Zinman and Ax’s clear enjoyment of the music made it seem like a cozy evening with friends — and great music, of course.

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Concert Review: London Philharmonic Orchestra with Vladimir Jurowski & Leonidas Kavakos

I recently learned that the London Philharmonic Orchestra offers £4 tickets to select concerts for students and people under 26. How did I not know this before?! All you have to do is call the box office, quote “NOISE £4,” and show up with your student ID to collect the tickets (thank goodness for being a grad student). So I called and got tickets to the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Championing Freedom” concert on 22 January, featuring violinist Leonidas Kavakos and conducted by the LPO’s principal conductor, Vladimir Jurowski. For £4, our seats were even closer than when we got discounted tickets from Time Out London last year.

The concert’s first half consisted of two all-string (plus one harpsichord) pieces featuring Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, a tall, lanky character with shoulder-length hair and what you might call “hipster glasses.” The program opened with Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, BWV 1041 (1717). As the music started, a smile came to my face as I recalled that this is one of my dad’s and grandfather’s favorite concertos. Kavakos lead the small string ensemble — with Jurowski on the harpsichord — in a subtle and controlled performance, blending into and emerging out of the orchestra when necessary.

Second on the program was a new piece for me: Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s (1905-1963) Concerto funebre for violin and string orchestra, written in 1939 as a protest piece against the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. Kavakos displayed an entirely different set of skills in this concerto, which required powerful, quick technical playing — in an incredible cadenza — as well as extremely high notes sustained as softly as possible. The piece itself, divided into four movements — between which Jurowski hardly paused — was an intense and moving experience. There were echoes of Vaughan Williams-like harmonics in many of the lush, swelling string passages. Moments of extreme Romanticism were speckled amongst jagged and jarring “modern”-sounding phrases. Jurowski’s conducting was crisp and clear, and Kavakos shone as the angry yet mournful voice of the world.

If you want to get an idea of Kavakos’ skill, here’s a clip of him playing the Brahms concerto with Jurowski and the London Philharmonic:

After the interval, the orchestra filled out — winds! horns! timpani! — and Jurowski led them in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 (“Eroica”) (1805). This piece was revolutionary upon its premiere, both for its unprecedented length and its playing with traditional symphonic form. Seeing it live brought out subtleties and complexities that I hadn’t heard before. Jurowski communicates so well with his orchestra — he was fun to watch — and really highlighted the symphony’s tempo contrasts, especially in the fourth movement. In that same movement, I enjoyed watching the main theme bounce around between instruments and be broken up here and there by tempo shifts and interjections. Jurowski also brought out the horns and double basses in ways that you might not notice on a recording. I heard the basses’ slow rolls for the first time in the brilliantly executed second movement (marcia funebre), which Jurowski took quite slowly while sustaining the tension and emotion so it never lacked for energy.

Overall, the concert was fantastic, and I loved watching Jurowski and Kavakos work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. If you ever get a chance to see any of them, do it. Personally, I’m looking forward to the next opportunity for £4 LPO tickets…

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Recipe: “Fluffy but Crispy” Cornmeal & Caramelized Banana Pancakes

Happy September! Can you believe how quickly the summer has flown by? My Ukrainian pupils and colleagues will be celebrating перший дзвінок (pershyy dzvinok, “first bell”) soon to start the school year…it feels a little weird not to be in Sniatyn celebrating with them.

How are you “ringing in” this month?

We kicked off September this morning with a long run for me and cycling for F. As per Sunday tradition, we refueled with pancakes. Brunch tunes (my choice) included Jeremy Denk’s recording of some Bach Partitas and Glenn Gould’s take on the “Goldberg Variations.”

 

And now to the pancakes. Instead of my usual recipe, I decided to try a new one that I’ve had on my “to make” list for a while. These eggless wonders, “fluffy but crispy” in F’s words, were adapted from Minimalist Baker’s Mini Sopapilla Pancakes. Theirs are vegan, mine are not: I used real butter and a mixture of regular (cow) milk and almond milk. You can obviously make them vegan if you want to. I used whole wheat flour and added cornmeal for some texture. The generous sprinkling of cinnamon and slightly caramelized banana slices lend the pancakes depth and they do develop wonderful, crispy edges enveloping fluffy, flavorful insides.

F suggested adding the artistically drizzled maple syrup

F suggested artistically drizzling the maple syrup for a better photo

Cornmeal & Caramelized Banana Pancakes (adapted from Minimalist Baker. Makes 6 medium pancakes)

Ingredients

  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup cornmeal
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 scant tbsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • dash of salt
  • 3/4 cup milk (I used semi-skimmed aka 1-2%)
  • 1/2 cup almond milk (or other non-dairy milk)
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • 1.5 tsp vanilla
  • 1 banana, sliced thinly

Procedure

  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. In a small bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients (milk through vanilla).
  • Stir the wet ingredients into the dry until just combined.
  • Put a pan over medium heat and coat the bottom of it with some oil. Slice the banana.
  • Drop a ladleful (~1/2 cup) of batter into the pan. Gently place a few banana slices on top of each pancake. Cook for 2-3 minutes or until bubbles form around the edges, then carefully flip and cook for 2-3 more minutes.
  • Serve warm with your favorite topping(s). Some suggestions: maple syrup, honey, molasses, peanut butter, yogurt, more fruit…

Enjoy!