In a long-ago "Young People's Concert" on TV, Leonard Bernstein took as his theme the idea of "Bach Transmogrified." To his audience of captive tykes, he presented numerous examples of the sturdy old baroque master's sturdy old music re-arranged not only for symphony orchestras, but also for such then-up-to-date phenomena as a rock band and a Moog synthesizer (I told you it was long ago).
Bernstein's point, if I understood it at age 12, was that Bach's work was a kind of super-music, so ingeniously and flawlessly put together that it was capable of surviving any kind of handling, whether respectful or rough. To put it another way: Bach's music sounds great played by just about any instrument or arrangement of instruments.
"Bach to the Future," Sunday's Society for Chamber Music's concert at Hochstein Performance Hall, made much the same point, though strictly with regular instruments and highly respectful handling. This diverting program presented some familiar music by Bach, and a few Bachian inspirations -- starting with several examples of remarkable imitation-Bach for violin and piano by a 10-year-old Felix Mendelssohn, sturdily played by Juliana Athayde.
In arranging Bach's "Goldberg Variations" for string trio, the violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky paid homage to a great piece of music and to a great, if very idiosyncratic, performance of it: Glenn Gould's 1981 re-recording of the "Goldbergs," with its often glacial tempi and general otherworldly air. Arranging this quintessentially "keyboard" work for violin, viola, and cello may seem like a quixotic endeavor, but it works. Sitkovetsky turns idiomatic keyboard writing into idiomatic string writing while sounding convincingly Bachian. Athayde, violist Marc Anderson, and cellist Benjamin Krug presented about half of the 30 variations that make up the piece, beginning and ending with that becalmed "Aria."
Whatever its oddities, Gould's recording was a moving musical journey, and so was this, performed with an admirable plainness and directness of expression. I would love to hear this trio play the entire thing.
The remainder of the program offered Bach refracted through several different composing sensibilities. Mozart discovered Bach about midway through his career, and paid homage in arranging several of the fugues from the "Well-Tempered Clavier" for string quartet. Violinist Shannon Nance joined Athayde, Anderson, and Krug for five of these, demonstrating the clarity that individual instruments can bring to complex contrapuntal writing.
Charles Gounod, the composer of "Faust," took a simple approach to arranging Bach, superimposing a sweet (if not saccharine) melody over the composer's first prelude from the "WTC" to create the famous "Ave Maria." This was appealingly performed by Nance with pianist Chiao-Wen Cheng, who got a flashy solo opportunity in Rachmaninoff's arrangement of another Bach prelude, from the Third Violin Partita. Rachmaninoff, not surprisingly, rethought this single line of violin writing in thoroughly piano-virtuoso terms. The result, including some un-Bachian harmonies, sounds almost like an outtake from his "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini."
All this was unexpectedly balanced by three movements from Claude Bolling's "Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano," a 1973 piece written for Jean-Pierre Rampal that was a bestseller on records and ubiquitous on classical radio and TV commercials 40 years or so ago. Its success spawned numerous, similar suites by Bolling for jazz trio with classical celebs playing trumpet, violin, cello, and so on. This suite is the prototype: featherweight, but cleverly written, tuneful, and quite a workout for the flutist, in this case the RPO's Rebecca Gilbert, supported by Cheng, bassist Jeff Campbell, and drummer Dave Mancini.
Bolling copies some baroque dance types and harmonic progressions, and he even winds the piece up with a lively jazz fugue, but his music is closer to the good-natured, high-class background music of Telemann than to anything by Bach. As in much "classical jazz," like the concert works of Gershwin, there can be quite a bit of filler between the good tunes, but this performance -- if not well-tempered, certainly good-tempered -- entertainingly wrapped up an interesting program.