Showing why Bach is indestructible

The New York Times, 9/29/97
by Anthony Tommasini

There was nothing in the program note for the concert on Saturday night at the 92d Street Y by the Greenleaf Chamber Players to explain the program’s provocative title: “The Indestructible Bach.” But by the end of this engrossing evening, what these superb performers had been up to seemed clear.

Most musicians and critics agree that there is more to be discovered in the music of past masters. Yet keeping the old repertory fresh is not easy. One solution, as presented on this program, was to perform the music of Bach alongside recent contemporary works by composers who revere the great master but honor him by finding new ways to create.

This is not to suggest that the oboist Peggy Pearson, a co-musical director of the ensemble, was being didactic by placing on the same program a Bach Trio Sonata in D minor, which featured her prominently on the English horn, and Mario Davidovsky’s 1996 Quartetto No. 2, written for Ms. Pearson. Mr. Davidovsky’s gritty 10-minute work for oboe and string trio, which was receiving its New York premiere, is no self-conscious homage to Bach: it is kinetic, restless music powerfully influenced by the l2-tone esthetic. But the reciprocity between old and new that emerged naturally by the juxtaposition was unmistakable and exciting.

The remarkable mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt was the vocalist in a work by the composer John Harbison and a Bach cantata, pieces that also, in this context, seemed to share sensibilities. Mr. Harbison’s “Due Libri del Mottetti di Montale” is two extended excerpts from his 50-minute song cycle setting poems by Eugenio Montale, as arranged in 1991 for Ms. Hunt and a seven-piece chamber ensemble.

No matter how complex Mr. Harbison’s pungent harmonic language and skittish counterpoint become, the instrumental writing is alert to the sensual vocal lines and the dramatic imagery of the texts, which depict in sometimes surreal imagery the poet’s painful reactions to a separation from his lover. As in Renaissance madrigals and in Bach choral works, there is much effective word-painting in Mr. Harbison’s music: a buzzing bass clarinet and shimmering strings evoke rustling carob trees. In her vibrant singing, Ms. Hunt was by turns voluptuous and plaintive.

Again, because of the context this program provided, Bach’s solo cantata “Vergnügte Ruh’, beliebte Seelenlust” was a revelation: an agitated portrait of a person’s painful spiritual journey. Compared with this fascinating program, a typical concert by an early-music ensemble exploring lesser-known works of Bach might seem like a presentation at a scholarly convention.