Bach and New Horizons

One of the great joys of serving as your Artistic Director has been the generous and open-minded spirit displayed by NOVA audiences over the years. In my mind, the pivotal moment for NOVA programming came during my first season (2010-11) at a concert with music by Beethoven and Jason Eckardt.

While much of that first season took a cautious and conservative approach, Mr. Eckardt’s piece represented a true moment of non-concession with its searing and uncompromising attitude with regard to textural density and instrumental virtuosity. The reception of the NOVA audience that day changed the trajectory of future seasons as it was readily apparent that this group of chamber music aficionados craved more than a business-as-usual concert experience; the riskiest programmatic choice of the season was the most enthusiastically received.

Sunday's concert will attempt to bring some of the programming trends of the past nine seasons full circle. Certainly one of the hallmarks of our events has been the juxtaposition of historical and modern repertoires, and when appropriate, the presentation of individual movements that alternate between the canonical and avant garde.

The first half of the concert offers this type of duality, with movements of Bach’s first solo cello suite presented in a dialogue with solo viola music by Hungarian composer György Kurtág. Bach’s cello music establishes a rich and sonorous world, while Kurtág’s music is deliberately spare and aphoristic. The two composers are paired to showcase both their radically different ideals and their shared intensity of musical purpose.

NOVA musicians have performed a great deal of Mozart’s music over the past nine seasons. While that is true of the current season, one of the goals this year is also to offer music by several of Mozart’s immediate predecessors. None of Mozart’s models played a more significant role in his stylistic evolution than Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of J.S. Bach and an important pioneer of Classical era musical thought. Mozart relied so heavily on the models found in J.C. Bach’s works that much of the concerto heard today sounds uncannily like Mozart himself.

The Bach concerto is surrounded by two works of living composers. Opening the 2nd half of the program will be Jason Eckardt’s Toll, for piano four hands, a work that asks one player to sit at the keyboard and the other to stand at the tail of the instrument, exclusively creating sounds from inside the piano. (During the first season Kimi and I performed on NOVA (2004-5), we premiered a piano four hands piece by Erin Watson that required similar techniques.) Eckardt’s work was commissioned by the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo as a part of a large-scale project honoring Kurtág. They debuted Toll in the spring of 2016 on a concert that alternated piano music by Kurtág with newly commissioned pieces. The piano writing, embracing long resonant (tolling) bass sonorities often played by soft yarn mallets, is reminiscent of the piano writing in Eckardt’s pulse-echo, commissioned by NOVA and premiered on the series in 2014.

There is one other element that may sneak its way on to the program. On April 5th, the world lost its favorite modernist jazz pianist, Cecil Taylor. Mr. Taylor redefined the boundaries of jazz with explosively complex and atonal improvisations at the instrument, influencing generations of modern composers and pianists along the way.

It’s possible the concert will include an improvised homage, it’s difficult to say much with precision in advance. If such a thing were to occur, it would be after the J.C. Bach, escorting us from his world to that of Inés Thiebaut.

Inés Thiebaut is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in music theory at the University of Utah. A brilliant composer and theorist, she has been commissioned by many of the leading new music ensembles, both in the U.S. and abroad. Her music is rooted in the postmodern tradition and is influenced by perceptual art and complexity. Known for her sensitivity to timbre and transparent musical textures, her works often possess a delicacy of style and affect. (And again, in the interest of bringing elements of the last 9 seasons full circle, she studied with Jason Eckardt while pursuing a Ph.D. at the CUNY Graduate Center.)

Hiraeth receives its world premiere on Sunday by NOVA musicians, the following are her notes on the piece:

Hiraeth mutates from a chamber sextet to a piano chamber concerto halfway through the piece. It is a humble homage to Bach, and his Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, where the harpsichord emerges from within the texture of the concerto grosso and plays one of the very first extended solo keyboard passages of the genre. The piano in Hiraeth starts simply, facilitating the introduction of the rest of the ensemble. Yet as the piece progresses its energy and intensity starts dominating the texture until it becomes the constant heartbeat that governs the continuity of the music.

The title is a Welsh word which is hard to translate into English. It roughly means deep longing, similar to the type of longing expressed in Portuguese Fados. The type of longing that resonates through this piece is not a longing for a physical place. It is the longing for a place that doesn’t truly exist, beyond the grasp of the music.

Jason Hardink