All About Bach

Last Saturday, I attended the UCLA Early Music Ensemble’s fall concert. A friend of mine from high school who now also goes to grad school in Los Angeles came with me. The theme of the concert was “All About Bach.” It was, in fact, an all J.S. Bach program, except that Johann Kuhnau (Bach’s predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig) and Johann Christoph Bach (a cousin of Bach’s) had a cameo apiece.

The concert was held in the rotunda of the Powell Library, a beautiful building I don’t visit nearly often enough because it’s the undergraduate library (the graduate research library, meanwhile, is architecturally uninspiring). There’s pretty brickwork and mosaics and owls carved into the balustrades of the staircases.

I listen to a lot of Baroque music, especially these days (listening to Part I of Handel’s Messiah on repeat is sure to get me through the last grueling weeks of the term, right?), but it’s so much better to hear it performed live. It renews my enthusiasm for familiar pieces. Everyone in the ensemble was performing on period instruments, and at the intermission we were invited to go up and look at them. The Baroque cellos were beautifully crafted: one of them seemed to have a Templar cross inlaid in the black wood of the fingerboard, and the other’s scroll was carved into a lion’s head. And all the string players had Baroque bows.

Something I learned at the concert was that Bach wrote a secular cantata about a father and his coffee-crazed daughter. We were treated to the daughter’s ode to coffee (“Ah! how sweet coffee tastes! / Lovelier than a thousand kisses”), and even if I couldn’t relate, it was amusing (and featured a dazzling flute part!).

The ensemble performed some perennial favorites, including the second movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, the third movement of the double violin concerto in D minor, and the entire Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The piece by Johann Christoph Bach was entirely new to me, though (so was the composer, for that matter). It was a “death aria” entitled “Mit Weinen hebt sich’s an” (“It begins with weeping”). The text is basically about how every stage of life is miserable. Seriously, looking over the English translation in the program notes, I thought it had the makings of a shape note text: “Old age approaches, the sorrowful years, / that holds no pleasure” (cf. “And if to eighty we arrive, / We’d rather sigh and groan than live” from “Exit” in The Sacred Harp). I expected there to be a turning point at the end, something along the lines of Weeping, weeping, weeping…But! Jesus/heaven! but there isn’t really. I guess that part was assumed by the German Lutherans singing and hearing this piece. All that said, the music is gorgeous.

In other news, I just turned in the first draft of Book 2 to my editor. It took me about eight and a half months to write it and do one hasty revision of it. I have never written a book that fast in my life. Now I’m experiencing manuscript withdrawal. It’s probably for the best, since now I can devote myself wholly to end-of-term projects, but I miss my manuscript…

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2 thoughts on “All About Bach

    • Check on the no endpins (although I think one of the two had an endpin, though it wasn’t clear how far it came out). I’ve actuallly tried playing my cello without using the endpin, and it’s possible, though it takes extra effort I’d rather not be expending. The cellos themselves are a little…chunkier than modern ones. And though the bows weren’t huge, they have differently shaped tips, and the musicians were holding them farther up (towards the tip) from the frog (kind of like some fiddlers do). I wonder how long it takes to get used to a Baroque instrument if you join this ensemble? I was hoping to try one of the cellos at intermission, but the musicians didn’t look to eager to let go of their instruments, and I suppose they had no reason to believe me if I told them I could in fact play the cello.

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