Bach’s Adventure through Every Key
April 4, 2010

Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I
Caruth Auditorium, SMU
Dallas, TX
Thursday, April 1, 2010
8:00 p.m.

The title of J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier refers to a tuning that allows musicians to play in all twenty-four keys, major and minor, unlike the “just tuning” that stacks Pythagorean fifths (intervals of a 3:2 ratio) on top of each other to produce the twelve notes of the Western scale, which subsequently makes some keys sound out of tune. Yet, because the distance between each note is not equal in the well-tempered tuning, as it is in modern “equal tempered” tunings, each prelude and fugue of Bach’s WTC has a different disposition.

“Color” is the staple word to describe the different characters of each key, which is the origin of the word “chromatic.” The WTC has a clear design, then, as it is organized chromatically, one prelude and one fugue in every key. The triumph of Bach’s masterpiece is not limited to the colors that the well-tempered tuning allows, but the range of styles, tempos, and emotions is astonishing and what gives this collection its staying power.

Nine piano students and teachers from the Meadows School of Music joined together to give an audience the rare experience of listening to the first book of Bach’s WTC in its entirety.

Each piece has its own character: the C major prelude is a beautifully simple; the F minor fugue is intriguing and cerebral, the G Major prelude is a whirlwind of sparks; the D Major fugue is stately and proud; the B flat minor prelude is haunting.

And each performer had his or her own character, too. Hannah Payne played sensitively while using full, broad lines. Thomas Schwan’s style was serious and formal, while Alberto Peña’s was bold. David Karp played in a more Baroque style, simplifying the dynamics and letting the harmonies of the interweaving lines speak for themselves, until the F minor prelude, which was too saucy.

Lucille Chang played too much in the Romantic style for my tastes. Worse, her resolutions at the ends of phrases were harsh and sometimes downright ugly. Alessio Bax was the star performer, playing more preludes and fugues than anyone else and playing them better than anyone else. He was the only performer who could maintain three simultaneous voices with three different dynamics. His technique coupled with his imagination made the E major fugue the highlight of the evening.

On Monday, April 5 at 8:00 p.m. in Caruth Auditorium in the Meadows building on SMU’s campus a similar group of  pianists will perform the second book of Bach’s WTC. The concert is free. I will be there.

My Salon, A Thank-You (Part I)
March 4, 2010

Salon: An Evening Celebrating the Arts
Saturday, February 13, 2010
7:30 p.m.

As promised by word of mouth, below is the review of the Salon I hosted almost three weeks ago. I have given myself a two-fold difficult task. One, I am reviewing my own performance. Two, I am commenting on non-musical performances–various demonstrations and readings. The event was a blast, and I hope that this post will act less as a review and more as a remembrance of what happened and as a thank-you to all who performed and attended.

I opened the evening with the first prelude, a fitting beginning, from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. I tried to focus on the clarity of the five-note voicings of each chord. With the repetitive rhythm and arpeggiated pattern, the temptation is to create variety by swelling dramatically in a Romantic style, but I aimed for a more subdued and gentler line of minimal crescendos to let the harmonies themselves create the drama.

After last year’s five serial sketch installments, the Mike Anderson Players returned, featuring Mr. Anderson performing a piece called “Dear Fellow Virginian.” He read an email exchange between novelist Richard Bausch and Senator John Warner of Virginia regarding President Clinton’s impeachment. The email exchange slowly reveals that Senator Warner’s responses were automated. Mark Twain once gave a lecture in which he told the same humorous anecdote five times in a row. The audience was nonplussed after two and three iterations, but by the end, they were in stitches. Like America’s literary jester-king, Mr. Anderson left us laughing.

Mrs. Williamson played Brahms’s Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2 in A Major. I thank her for carrying on a private goal of mine to have Bach and Brahms performed at every Salon I host. This piece is one of the most beautiful melodies I know, and I find myself physically unable to play it because I linger on every note, every harmony, my ear never fully satiated. Mrs. Williamson played excellently, especially careful to voice the melody and balance the counter melodies of the middle section. She negotiated the terribly stiff action of the piano, a difficult feat when playing the delicate and intricate Brahms intermezzi.

Mr. Robbins gave a bibliophile’s show-and-tell. He presented five of his hand-made books and explained some of the more striking features like the Coptic binding. After a descriptive bibliography and a mini-biography of each book’s author, he passed the books around for a full sensory experience. Mr. Robbins then read a selection from his chapbook Crass Songs of Sand & Brine, which transported us to the east coast, smelling of the stale beer and sea funk of his yesteryears.

I returned to the piano to introduce a Valentine’s theme, playing Prokofiev’s “The Montagues and Capulets,” a transcription from his ballet Romeo and Juliet. The piece requires orchestral thinking to bring out the colors of the various instruments and to render the full scope of dynamics. In other words, the piece is as challenging technically as it is fun to play in its dangerous gravity. The first section was well-executed, but the coldly formal dance in the middle had flubs that sounded as if Juliet had taken a golf club to the knee and limped back into the first theme. She and I recovered, but the initial magic was lost in the ending.

Part II promises a less tragic ending. Check soon to see the hilarious and charming conclusion of the Salon.