March 9, 2015

Bach, Being Convinced, and Opening Ears

Let's hear it for the power of social networking and social media, as I was recently invited to attend the most recent concert presented by The Spire Series, one which featured New York City Ballet Orchestra concertmaster Kurt Nikkanen performing unaccompanied works by J. S. Bach.   Having lived in Baltimore more or less full time since 2010, I find that I am still learning much about this city and the wide range of artistic and cultural activities available here.    As The Spire Series is a "new-to-me" series, of course I went, and it was even more fulfilling to have a student and his mother come along with me.

The Spire Series is presented at First and Franklin Presbyterian Church, a stunning Gothic Revival church in the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore, and was the perfect venue for this performance that included both Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor and Sonata No. 3 in C Major.

As musicians, as with anyone living on the planet, it is vital that we keep our eyes and ears open (as I type this I recall a conversation with a friend during which he shared that there are performances that he heard at the age of sixteen that still shape his expectations), as everyone has something to contribute.   This was definitely the case with Mr. Nikkanen, who took the time to explain the difference between a sarabande and a chaccone to the audience and followed that explanation by playing all of the movements of the D Minor partita with an incredibly secure technique, bringing us to an incredibly well-conceived interpretation of the monumental chaccone.

After the intermission, Mr. Nikkanen delved deeply into the C Major sonata so convincingly, his reading including one of the most well-paced, exciting and convincing readings of a fugue that I have ever heard, that movement being followed with a most intimate yet visceral Andante.

While a student at the Shepherd School of Music, I left many performances being "convinced":   hearing interpretations that were so well-conceived that there could be no other way of sharing that music, yet sure that no one else could share as each of those young artists did.   This evening left me the same way:   while I have been a devotee of many other violinist's performances of these works, there is something very special about Mr. Nikkanen's approach to unaccompanied Bach performance that left me again grateful to be a musician and a thinker.

One of the wonderful things about The Spire Series is that they host post-concert receptions during which audience members can meet the artists who performed, and I am incredibly grateful to Mr. Nikkanen for taking the time to speak with my student about memorization and the "rite-of-passage" that is delving into the Sonatas and Partitas.   Furthermore, many thanks to Jason Kissel and everyone involved with The Spire Series for bringing this phenomenal musician to Baltimore.

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