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Remembering Anner Bylsma

The great Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma died July 25 at the age of 85.

 

By Guy Fishman

I play early music on period instruments because of the great Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma, who died July 25 at the age of 85. When I was 14, I entered the classical music section of a Tower Records store where Bylsma’s recent release of arrangements of music for unaccompanied flute and violin by J.S. Bach, performed on his son’s 7/8-sized cello tuned like a violin, was being played. I didn’t pay much attention to it until Bylsma hit the final note of the prelude to the E major Partita, BWV 1006. It ended a driven but, as I realized much later, subtly nuanced and very “spoken” performance. It seemed the energy stored by what had preceded the note was fully released by it: powerfully, beautifully, emphatically, and most notably to me, without a hint of vibrato. I had never heard anything like it; it shocked and captivated me. I grabbed a copy and bought it. Anner changed my life, and would do so again.

Guy Fishman

I listened to the recording every day for months. I studied Bylsma’s liner notes and in pre-Google days searched for anything about the cellist I could find. A few years later, I was able to hear him play three Bach suites at the Walter Reade Theater, a woefully dry acoustic situated at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. He addressed the audience to explain why he was sitting on a “throne,” as he called it — a podium barely wider than a chair, regularly used by concerto soloists (“It sounds better, even without an endpin.”). During the fifth suite, he tuned his “a-turned-g” string while sustaining it in a cadence. I knew I needed to play for him. After getting his autograph, I asked if he took students. He said, “I have left school,” in a way that seemed as though he was recently matriculated in a degree program but decided to drop out.

It took some time, but I got my chance to study with Bylsma after all. During doctoral studies at New England Conservatory, I was awarded a Fulbright fellowship in Amsterdam, and because Bylsma was not affiliated with a university, I took private lessons at his home next to the Vondelpark. Lessons began with tea and biscuits in the kitchen, over which discussion was had on a variety of topics, musical and not. We then moved upstairs and worked for two hours in a room dominated by a massive library of first editions and copies sent by distant libraries, collected over a lifetime and organized in folders (“I’m very proud of my system.”). When I could take in no more, we would return to the kitchen to listen to some recordings while eating an aged Gouda and drinking Calvados, his favorite spirit. This weekly wonder of an experience lasted about three hours; when I said I needed to split lessons in two so that I could absorb more easily, Anner agreed to two weekly lessons, but what was presumably to last 1-1/2 hours turned into two 2-1/2 hour lessons. Anner had quite a bit to say about a great many things.

By the time I moved to Amsterdam, I had already released a CD and had steady work with the Handel and Haydn Society and Boston Baroque. In my arrogance, I arrived with a copy of Bylsma’s book, Bach, the Fencing Master, annotated with my various oppositions to the arguments he made in it. It didn’t matter. Anner made certain I didn’t waste too much of my time arguing by completely disarming me with an infectious wit and charm, delivered by an almost mesmerizing storytelling ability. Within a couple of weeks, I was converted; by the time I left, I wanted to be just like him.

The level of inquiry and erudition was intoxicating. There was not only what he had read, in either Dutch, German, French, or English, but the conclusions and extrapolations he created, usually presented as a scene that would give a South Bank director pleasure in creating, or a remembrance of some colorful event from his past, or just an entertaining analogy. “At the end of your bow, right before you change direction, you must slip on a banana peel”; “This note should be connected to the next by just the thinnest strand of spittle”; “My aunt Viola once heard vibrato. She exclaimed, ‘Why, I would NEVER do that!!!’ So here, in this measure, think of my aunt Viola.”  

But there was plenty of practical, technical direction. Anner was entirely aware of his place in the early-music world and how other cellists viewed him (while in Amsterdam, I heard Janos Starker give a speech in which he said, “The world’s greatest baroque cellist lives right here in Amsterdam.” There was no doubt as to whom he meant.) But he did not regard these as “baroque cello” lessons, and I understood why Hidemi Suzuki told me that Bylsma wouldn’t teach him baroque cello when he studied with him. Bylsma began playing on a cello fitted with gut strings and never gave them up. He won the 1959 Pablo Casals Competition using them; he was principal cellist of the Concertgebouw Orchestra playing on them. He recorded Debussy, Schubert, Hindemith, Messiaen, and Shostakovich on them. When his colleague Tibor de Machula asked him why he played on such old-fashioned strings, he replied that, surely, steel strings — having come around in a more global way in the 1920s and 30s — were by the 1970s themselves old-fashioned, and that everyone should use gut. Certainly the repertoire was Baroque — he assigned me works by Domenico Gabrielli, Antonio Vivaldi, and, of course, the suites for unaccompanied cello by J.S. Bach, although there was also Haydn, Romberg, Beethoven, Schumann, and Popper. But the element that is a highlight difference between standard and baroque instruments — gut strings — was not discussed.

What was discussed, and the only bit of equipment Bylsma cared deeply about, was the bow. I started on my way to understanding the variety of weight and emphasis created by a limitless vocabulary of articulation that I had unknowingly encountered at Tower Records when Anner — who was not performing publicly any more — began demonstrating his use of the bow. The nimbleness of the fingers controlled not only an uncannily speech-like performance (“Is this music sung, like someone speaking with his mouth open? Or is it spoken?”), but also every imaginable sounding point on the string and therefore an ability to articulate a thought with sound density rather than pressure.

Anner’s wife, the superb violinist Vera Beths, once told me as an aside, “Anner has the best bow arm in the world.” I accept this statement as fact. This is easy to do because when I asked Anner why he used his Peccatte bow for his second recording of the Bach suites and his Bouman baroque bow for Haydn concerti, he answered, “What your ear hears, your bow must do.” There was perhaps no more important lesson to be learned. What is evident in the numerous tributes to Anner that over the last week have appeared in print and online is that the music world mourns the loss of the imagination that wielded that bow and created that sweet tone with which the music was spoken. It was driven by an indefatigable curiosity that Anner followed at any given moment, living fully in that moment, sometimes talking through it and suddenly asking a seemingly unrelated question as a new direction was suggested, or breaking out in laughter, his bushy eyebrows angling impossibly, as he did so.

Many thought Anner was a provocateur, but that is not who I experienced; he was fully committed to the journeys his curiosity and imagination took him on, and did not mind inviting us along, through performances, writings, recordings, and lessons, the last paired with a good Calva. I still have a list of questions I wanted to ask him, things he pointed to in lessons that hinted at one such journey or another. Now he’s taken a journey on which I cannot come, so, as I did after that Bach recital I once heard, I’ll have to wait.

Guy Fishman is principal cellist of the Handel and Haydn Society.

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CD Review: Cello Gems By Another Bach

 

CPE Bach Cello Concerti
Guy Fishman, cello; Members of the Handel and Haydn Society
Olde Focus Recordings FCR 915

By Mike Telin

On his latest recording, CPE Bach Cello Concerti, the remarkable cellist Guy Fishman proves that Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach — so admired by the likes of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven — should be viewed as more than the transitional composer he is often thought to be.

In his liner notes, Fishman offers this quote from C.P.E. Bach: “A musician cannot hope to move the listener unless he himself is moved. He must of necessity feel all the affects that he hopes to arouse in his audience, for revealing of his own humor will stimulate a like humor in his listener.”

Obviously, the cellist was inspired by these words. The exuberance he brings to each concerto, combined with his adroit sense of phrasing and extraordinary technique, make this CD a walk through a garden of musical delights. His performances of the three concertos are filled with humor as the music leaps from one end of the instrument’s register to the other, something Fishman does with grace and agility.

The cellist and a top-notch, six-member ensemble from Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society open with the dramatic concerto Wq. 172/H.439 in A major. In the opening Allegro, as he does throughout the recording, Fishman embraces the quirky technical passages of the faster movements with a devil-may-care attitude, each phrase defined by clean, crisp articulations. He knows where he wants every line to go and doesn’t stop until he gets there.  

But Fishman and his colleagues — violinists Aisslinn Nosky and Maureen Murchie, violist Max Mandel, cellist Sarah Freiberg, bassist Robert Nairn, and harpsichordist Ian Watson — do more than wow the listener with flash. Their pensive interpretations of the slower lyrical music is stunning, the Adagio from Concerto Wq. 171/H.436 in B-flat major being a case in point.

Bust of C.P.E. Bach at the Schauspielhaus zu Berlin.

In all three works, Fishman performs his own cadenzas, although in the opening Allegro assai from Concerto Wq.170/H. 432 in A minor he does borrow a bit of Bach’s material. The technical mastery and drama the ensemble bring to the performance of this concerto’s brilliant music make it the highlight of the album. After the fiery first movement, the cellist brings out his inner opera singer during the Andante — his cadenza is soulful. The final Allegro assai is bold, colorful, and full of panache.

A bonus feature of the album is Fishman’s personal liner notes, in which he shows his scholarly side: “By playing his music, reading his Versuch, and studying autobiographic and biographic writings, I feel it is easy to know Emanuel Bach.” Just as the cellist’s playing makes you want to listen to more, his writing makes you want to read and perhaps learn more.

The sound quality of this recording, released on Olde Focus Recordings, is both excellent and intimate, giving the impression that the musicians are performing in your living room. Perhaps this CD will make people who have been skeptical about C.P.E. Bach’s music want to investigate it further.

Mike Telin serves as Executive Editor at ClevelandClassical.com and co-teaches classes in Music Criticism at Oberlin College and Conservatory.

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Bach Fests Bloom In The Carolinas

Ricard Bordas leading the Bach Society of Charleston in Bach’s ‘St. John Passion.’
(Courtesy of the Bach Society of Charleston)

 

By Perry Tannenbaum

Bach festivals are singing a new song in the Carolinas. After a three-year hiatus, a new Bach Society of Charleston formed in 2015 and revived the Holy City’s annual festival in South Carolina. Reprising the Bach Festival of Charleston for a third consecutive year, the society expanded the event from three days to four in February.

Bach Society of Charleston’s Ricard Bordas

Just a couple of years ago, the North Carolina Bach Festival had shriveled to a single guest-artist performance and one youth concert. Under new leadership in 2017, NC Bach presented four featured artist concerts. Instead of remaining huddled in Raleigh, the festival expanded its reach to include Greensboro and Charlotte. Expansion continued at the 2018 NC Bach Festival, and confidence is running high for next year, when the festival celebrates its 40th anniversary.

More spectacular yet is the meteoric rise of Bach Akademie Charlotte, which didn’t even exist a year ago. Two concerts — one in October and another in January — began their first season with hardly a word about the Big Bang to come. Akademie is presenting its first Charlotte Bach Festival June 9-17, when eight major events are being offered at churches in communities ranging from Gastonia to Winston-Salem.

None of the artistic directors at these three festivals was ready to proclaim a new wave of Bach enthusiasm sweeping the region. In the Charlotte area, however, there is definitely something different in the air. Up in Davidson, less than two miles from St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, where the Akademie staged its first concert, WDAV has grown to be the No. 1 classical public radio station in the country — partly by dropping news roundups at the top of the hour and partly by adding more Bach.

“Even before we launched our popular Sunday morning program Biscuits and Bach in 2009, audience research and anecdotal feedback made it clear that Baroque music was popular with our listeners, so it’s been a large part of the daily music mix, as well,” says WDAV general manager and content director Frank Dominguez. “Bach clearly represents the pinnacle of musical achievement in that era.”

While Bach hadn’t gained a firm foothold in Charlotte before the Akademie’s 2018 festival, there were other traces of a footprint besides WDAV. An annual BachFest bloomed at St. Alban’s, if only for a few hours, and the Charlotte Symphony ran a string of Bachtoberfests from 2013-15, including lightweight snippets from the Bach family mixed with Wagner, Mozart, Brahms, and — of course — beer.

More significantly, the orchestra programmed Bach’s B Minor Mass in 2002 and 2009 in its flagship classics series and St. Matthew Passion in 2013. Conducted by Scott Allen Jarrett, then music director at the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte and an assistant conductor at the Charlotte Symphony, this performance of the Passion planted the seed that eventually grew into the Akademie and its Charlotte Bach Festival.

Michael H. Trammell, president of Bach Akademie Charlotte, is on the verge of changing the cultural life of his hometown. He once was a tenor with the Oratorio Singers. In Bach, he found a composer he could connect with more deeply than any he had sung before, and in performing the Passion, he found what he wanted to do with his life.

“I remember finishing the concert cycle and wanting more, so I dove into Bach,” says Trammell. “My professional career as a vocalist continued to grow, and I started studying Bach in Germany through several young artist festivals under Helmuth Rilling, The music became very real and tangible as we performed in churches and cities where Bach lived and worked. In actuality, my hometown’s cultural life changed me and led me to a broader prospective of classical music and life in general.”

At Bach-centric concerts back home, Trammell found audiences that craved more — and a growing group of choral singers who could meet that demand at a high level. He performed several engagements with the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra. Co-founded by recorder player Frances Blaker and her sister, baroque cellist Barbara Blaker Krumdieck, NC Baroque was one of several early-music ensembles in the region that could supply instrumental nectar to the grand idea that was flowering in Trammell’s mind.

NC Baroque and WDAV would both be willing to partner in the Akademie endeavor. So would select churches, universities, and concert series. But the Charlotte Bach Festival needed strong leadership if it expected to grow and flourish. Trammell flew up to Boston in an attempt to bring Jarrett, his original mentor, aboard.

Jarrett hadn’t languished since leaving the Charlotte Symphony in 2015 after an 11-year stint. He is resident conductor of the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston and music director of the Back Bay Chorale. At Boston University, Jarrett has double duties, directing Sunday services at Marsh Chapel and helming a cantata series.

Nor is he a stranger to Bach festivals. At the Oregon Bach Festival, Jarrett is the director of the Vocal Fellows Program and the assistant chorus master. He also led off the 2017 season from the podium in a performance of St. Matthew Passion, the only conductor besides OBF founder Rilling to have that distinction. This summer, Jarrett is entrusted with another Rilling domain, the Discovery Series, a unique lecture-concert experience that delves into the craft and theology of Bach’s music while presenting it.

Bach Akademie Charlotte artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett

For Trammell, Jarrett was not only a mentor but a clear first choice for Akademie artistic director. For the goal of spreading the musical and pedagogical DNA of Rilling and the Oregon Bach Festival to Charlotte, Jarrett is ideal. With him aboard, all the Bach boxes are checked at the inaugural Charlotte Bach Festival. Two blockbuster evening concerts — the Orchestral Suite No. 1, the “Singet die Herrn” motet, and Cantata 147 on opening night and B Minor Mass the following weekend — bookend the festival.

In between, there are two daytime Bach Experience concerts modeled after Oregon’s Discovery Series and showcasing the first two cantatas, BWV 75 and 76, that Bach wrote in the summer of 1723 when he became cantor at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Topping off the Akademie’s first large-scale enterprise are an Emerging Artist Program and a Visiting Artist Recital Series, featuring Handel and Haydn principal cellist Guy Fishman and, four nights later, organist Bálint Karosi, winner of the 2008 International J.S. Bach Competition.

Even in the festival’s developmental stages, Jarrett has been blown away by the enthusiasm he has witnessed for the newborn Charlotte Bach, both near and far. He thought he would need to beg local universities to send him applicants for the Emerging Artist Program, but he received more than 40 audition tapes from 17 states plus Canada. He was hard-pressed to pick a final four. Krumdieck has played a key role in assembling the festival orchestra, with a trumpet duo that will fly in from New York and DC and a principal oboist, Meg Olin, also from DC.

“Just this morning,” Jarrett said the afternoon we spoke, “I got an email from a wonderful flute player who lives in Berkeley, California, whom I’ve known for a couple of years. He said, ‘I see you’re doing this thing in Charlotte. I’d love to come and play some time.’ So I’m getting emails from folks all across the country who are wanting to take part.”

All of the performers are professionals who will earn fees and travel expenses and accommodations, if they’re coming from outside the Charlotte vicinity. Seventy-five percent of the festival’s first-year budget, Jarrett says, will go to paying the musicians. No wonder he was prepping for a big fundraiser to be held a few days after our interview in mid-May.

While he doesn’t see a hot new Bach trend sweeping the Carolinas, Jarrett perceives a longer arc.

“Fifteen years ago, a performance of the St. John Passion was a rarity,” Jarrett recalls. “Now I check Facebook every March, and I can hardly find a post that doesn’t mention one of the Passions! It seems like people have discovered this repertoire, and they’re really doing.”

Ricard Bordas, artistic director at Bach Society of Charleston, paints a similar picture — in more vivid detail. When he arrived in 2001, he found it odd that Charleston — founded in 1670, 15 years before Bach’s birth, and where Spoleto Festival USA has flourished — had only a handful of early-music instrumentalists and just one baroque violinist.

“A city from the Baroque period,” Bordas marveled, “with gorgeous historic churches — one of the most beautiful cities in the world — with very little Baroque music.”

Michael H. Trammell, tenor and administrator

For years afterward, the dream of establishing a baroque music group that could offer major works on period instruments remained out of reach. The first incarnation of Charleston’s Bach Festival in 2009 mixed local musicians and choirs with specialists Bordas had met performing as a countertenor at the Boston Early Music Festival.

The Bach Society established a new Charleston Baroque Orchestra and reconfigured the 2016 Bach Festival of Charleston in an all-period-instrument mold. A new Youth Recital Concert was added in 2017, and the Charleston Baroque Voices were formed. The 2018 festival added a fourth day and spread to four locations, including Kiawah Island.

Building on the improvements and expansions of the past two NC Bach Festivals, executive director Roman Placzek plans to dedicate its 40th anniversary to fortifying NCBF’s excellent youth program. An accomplished cellist, Placzek doesn’t insist on period instruments, welcoming a new Yamaha CFX concert grand piano on the occasion of William Wolfram’s complete Goldberg Variations recital and offering two other 2017 concerts at Steinway Piano Galleries in Charlotte and Greensboro.

Nor does he completely scorn the Bachtoberfest concept. When Trophy Brewing Company hosted one of their 2018 special concerts in Raleigh, a new Fuguebier was born, brewed, Placzek says, according to a Bach fugue.

Placzek hadn’t heard of the Charlotte Bach Festival before we contacted him, but he was very pleased to learn about it.

“Our missions are different,” says Placzek, “but our passion is the same — the great J.S.B. Knowing about this great society offers me a prospect of a possibility of some fabulous cooperation. I am looking forward to contacting their artistic director, Scott Allen Jarrett.”

Although their territories will overlap, the Charlotte and the NC festivals are unlikely to collide. The elder Raleigh-based event historically ends on or before Bach’s birthday, while the Charlotte fest is sprouting in June, close to the other side of spring.

“The NC Bach Festival is taking place in March,” Placzek rejoices. “That’s three months away from June. Who can live without Bach that long? Well, we can’t! And our wonderful and ever-increasing Charlotte audience clearly can’t either. I am convinced the community of Charlotte will get more and more informed, more excited, and seek to be entertained by this great music and ask for more.”

Down in Charleston, a countertenor is singing a similar tune.

“I am really excited about the new Charlotte Bach Festival,” says Bordas. “It gives a new opportunity for cooperation between the early-music groups in the South. The new festival also adds to the growing Baroque music scene in the Southeast, including Georgia, where you also have the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, which is already 20 years old. My hope is that this growth of organizations will be followed by even more musicians moving into the area, as well as more programs of early music in schools and universities in the South.”

Perry Tannenbaum regularly covers the performing arts scene in Charlotte, N.C., for Creative Loafing and CVNC. His CD and concert reviews have also appeared in American Record Guide and JazzTimes.

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Fresh Takes On Seven Vivaldi Cello Concertos

A page from Vivaldi's autograph score of the Cello Concerto in A minor, RV 418.

A page from the autograph score of Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in A minor, RV 418. The composer wrote more than two dozen cello concertos.

 

Vivaldi: Seven Cello Concertos
Guy Fishman, cello; Members of the Handel and Haydn Society
Olde Focus Recordings FCR 907

By Mike Telin

CD REVIEW — After cellist Guy Fishman was given a recording of Vivaldi cello concertos at age 12, his life was forever changed. In the liner notes for his new recording, Vivaldi: Seven Cello Concertos, Fishman writes: “I burned to play this music. Vivaldi had sold me on the cello, and I hope to pay him sufficient tribute, in what modest way I can, when I return to his music time and time again.” Without a doubt, not only is this recording a “sufficient tribute” to the Red Priest, but Fishman’s brilliant performances also would bring a smile to the composer’s face if he were alive to hear them.

VivaldiCelloCover 400Obviously, the Israeli-born cellist is as inspired as ever by Vivaldi’s music. The youthful exuberance he brings to each concerto, combined with his keen sense of phrasing and extraordinary technique — especially his bow arm — makes this CD a feast for the ears. The album should also put to rest the notion that Vivaldi wrote one concerto five-hundred times: Fishman finds all that is individual about each of these works.

The cellist and a top-notch, seven-member ensemble from Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society open with the spirited concerto RV 403 in D major. As he does throughout the recording, he produces clean, crisp articulations during the faster movements, while long, lyrical phrases define the slower sections. In RV 418 in A minor, Fishman tosses off the first movement’s rapid string crossings with flair. His cadenza during the Largo is heartfelt and pensive.

Both soloist and colleagues sound spectacular in the concertos in C minor, D minor, and B minor (RV 401, 405, and 424), but their irrepressible account of RV 410 in F major is the highlight of the recording. The rhythmic strumming of theorbist Paula Chateauneuf adds extra panache to the fast movements and her delicate plucking creates a serene beauty during the Largo.

Guy Fishman

Guy Fishman

The disc concludes with the dazzling RV 413 in G major. Here, Fishman performs the fast scales and trills in the Allegros with aplomb while bringing an elegant vocal quality to the Largo.

A bonus feature of the album is Fishman’s personal liner notes, in which he ponders such questions as: What was Vivaldi’s character? How did the composer feel about his job at Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà. Did he feel conflict between the call of the muse and that of the church? Fishman also addresses how advances in technology brought the cello out of the continuo section and into its new role as a solo instrument.

The sound quality of the disc, released on Olde Focus Recordings, is both excellent and intimate, giving the impression that the musicians are performing in your living room. Perhaps this CD will inspire another 12-year-old cellist to discover this glorious music.

Mike Telin serves as Executive Editor at ClevelandClassical.com and team-teaches classes in Music Criticism at Oberlin College and Conservatory.

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