‘Bach is like that, he must be listened to in quietness of spirit’
By Alison Rooney
Perhaps fittingly postponed from its September date, the third and final chamber music concert in a series sponsored posthumously by Philipstown.info / The Paper founder Gordon Stewart will occur soon after the first anniversary of his death.
Now taking place on Sunday, Dec. 13, at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Cold Spring, the 4 p.m. concert features an all-Bach program, with music for solo stringed instruments and trio selections by Johann Sebastian Bach performed by Krista Bennion Feeney, violin; Rachel Evans, viola, and bassist John Feeney. All three musicians are leading artists in both historical and contemporary settings. Proceeds benefit St. Mary’s.
It was Stewart’s great wish to continue to bring the highest level of musicianship to his own community and these concerts are the culmination of this desire. The musicians also played in Stewart’s 2013 and 2014 Handel’s Messiah concerts, which drew large audiences at just this time of year.
This program includes Bach’s Partita 3 in E Major for solo violin; the exuberant Suite for Solo Cello in G Major rarely heard in concert on viola; and Trio Sonatas 5 in C Major and 3 in D Minor (from Sonatas for Organ, BWV 529 and 527) played by violin, viola and bass. Evans noted, “Gordon specifically asked for solo Bach and because Bach didn’t write for solo bass we thought we’d try these trios.”
Krista Feeney calls the trio of violin, viola and bass “particularly well suited to play these sonatas that in the past were often referred to as Trios for the Organ. The right hand of the organist is played by the violin, the left hand by the viola, and the pedal part is played by the bass. When an audience sees and hears the fluency and dexterity required to execute just one of the three parts on our string instruments, it should help in understanding the majesty and power that belong to the organ above any other instrument.”
Goethe and the music of Bach
Feeney continues: “C.F. Zelter, close friend of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and the teacher of Felix Mendelssohn, was instrumental in introducing Goethe to the music of Bach. Zelter had studied with J.P. Kirnberger, who along with Bach’s sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel were three of Bach’s most important students and who had all lived in Berlin, as did Mendelssohn and Zelter. By the turn of the century, the strongest Bach tradition in Europe was in Berlin.”
As an illustration of the transformational effect this music can have on its players and listeners, Krista Feeney provides excerpts from Two Centuries of Bach: An Account of Changing Taste, by Friedrich Blume, relating to Goethe’s first exposure to Bach’s music:
(Zelter) summed up his views on Bach in the magnificent words of a letter written to Goethe: “… this Leipzig cantor is a divine phenomenon, clear, yet inexplicable.’ …Goethe had listened carefully and when he was staying in Bad Berka with the mayor and organist Schütz he lay in bed and had Bach played to him. “Bach is like that, he must be listened to in quietness of spirit.”
Feeney explains: “It is very likely that Goethe heard Schütz play the very two organ sonatas that we will be playing a direct transcription of on Dec. 13. These are mature works of Bach’s that were composed for his son Wilhelm Friedemann to develop his organ playing. We are most fortunate that Goethe recorded the effect Bach’s music had upon him”:
It was there in Berka when my mind was in a state of perfect composure and free from external distractions that I first obtained some idea of your grand master. I said to myself it is as if the eternal harmony were conversing within itself as it may have done in the bosom of God just before the creation of the world. So likewise did it move in my inmost soul and it seemed like I neither possessed nor needed ears, nor any other sense — least of all the eyes.
As Feeney further explains:
In May 1821, when Mendelssohn was 12 years old, and Goethe 72, Zelter brought his student to Weimar to meet and visit as Goethe’s guest, and for 10 days Mendelssohn played Bach for Goethe every morning and evening. Mendelssohn was to visit Goethe four more times in Weimar, the last being in 1830 where Mendelssohn spent two weeks in the company of Goethe, often playing Bach. As Russell Stinson writes in his The Reception of Bach’s Works from Mendelssohn to Brahms, “As far as Goethe is concerned, surely he knew that his adopted hometown of Weimar was where Bach had composed most of his organ works.”
Krista Bennion Feeney is concertmaster of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Fred Cohn from Opera News praised Krista’s playing: “As soloist in Bach’s first concerto, Krista Bennion Feeney gave an object lesson in presenting an expressive unbuttoned Baroque singing line.”
John Feeney, noted by The New York Times as “the agile and charismatic double bass,” is principal double bass of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.
Garrison’s Rachel Evans, an internationally renowned violinist and violist, studied Baroque violin and viola in Germany 1995-96 and has played with many of the leading Baroque ensembles in the U.S. and Europe. Evans describes Bach’s works for solo strings as “interesting because of his investigation of counterpoint on instruments that, unlike a keyboard, cannot sustain widely separated pitches.
Without giving up his deep exploration of harmony he maximizes the use of his innate narrative ability, transforming the standard dance forms into conversational, intimate and soulful movements.” Evans is looking forward to performing the Suite in G Major, relating, “‘A solo instrumental piece is so intimate,’ my chiropractor exclaimed last week after I played a Bach bourée in his office. ‘So much more than an ensemble!’”
General admission tickets, $20, are available at brownpapertickets.com. Student tickets cost $5; children under 18 are welcome free of charge. Supporter tickets, $100, and sponsor tickets, $250, include preferred seating and acknowledgement in the program and can be purchased by mailing a check to St. Mary’s, 1 Chestnut St., Cold Spring, NY 10516. For more information call 845-265-2539, or visit stmaryscoldspring.org.