Big Ears last Saturday.There’s a wonderful moment in Pretty Woman when Richard Gere takes Julia Roberts to her first opera performance. As they exit his penthouse and enter the elevator, both dressed to the nines, she shyly says, “If I forget to tell you later, I had a really good time tonight.” This line came to mind as I was heading to hear Johnny Gandelsman perform at
Granted, I was not transported via limo and private jet; rather, my 2009 Hyundai. I wasn’t headed to San Francisco; rather, downtown Knoxville. I wasn’t going to hear La Traviata; rather, the entire collection of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. And Richard Gere wasn’t with me; alas, alone again. But I felt like Julia must have felt. I knew I was going to have a wonderful evening and hear a life-altering performance. And, in fact, I did.
The concert was held in Knoxville’s stunning St. John’s Cathedral. In a dramatic departure from most classical concerts I attend, I was not the youngest person in the audience. (This is noteworthy because I am age 61.) How refreshing to see the church filled with people of all ages (mostly young), dressed in all manner of clothing (mostly black), all wearing trendy ribbon wristbands (the mode of entry du jour). This was not your average concert audience. Then again, this was Big Ears, a festival dubbed as an “international cultural gathering that explores connections between musicians and artists, crossing all musical genres.” A bold enterprise that has garnered national attention.
Call Me Johnny
Mr. Gandelsman (herein after referred to simply as “Johnny”) states in his bio that he has a “strong desire to break down barriers between artists and their audiences.” Mission accomplished! Johnny entered the chancel area of the sanctuary without ceremony, donned in a long-sleeved black t-shirt, jeans, and high-tops. Particularly striking was his mane of Botticelli-esque golden curls. And he has enough of them to share the wealth with at least 20 people. His beard is long and full, so basically his expressive eyes are the only visible part of his face.
He greeted the audience with a subdued, “Hi, I’m Johnny,” which set the tone for the two-plus hours that were to follow. His low-key greeting made it clear that the evening was about Bach, not Johnny Gandelsman. He was simply the delivery mechanism. And, boy, did he deliver.
Although we were in a stately cathedral, Johnny came across more like a fiddler in the corner of a barn than a concert violinist. And I mean that in a good way! These pieces are monumentally difficult and require the highest level of technical ability. Because of those facts, we often lose sight of their form… they are, for the most part, dance pieces. Yes, even the much revered Chaconne. Johnny performed them with a lightness and flexibility that made the audience want to tap their toes and get up and move. (Look no further to find the roots of country fiddlin’ and bluegrass.) His tempi in a few movements were faster than I was used to, yet completely convincing. He did not show off, rather, set a pace that truly seemed dance-like.
Great violinists have referred to the Sonatas and Partitas as "the Himalayas of violinists" and “the Mount Everest of repertoire.” Given our proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains, along with Johnny’s fiddlin’ approach and mountain-man beard, I think we can safely dub this performance an “Appalachian experience.”
The Four Questions (Passover is approaching, after all)
Before I get into the concert specifics, here are the four most-asked questions I received from friends who knew I was attending Johnny's concert:
Chaconne Takes a Backseat
Anyone who has studied violin is familiar with the monumental “Chaconne” (Partita No. 2, D minor) and understands its weight in the repertoire. Prior to the opening D minor triad, I was braced for an aggressive “crunch,” but heard instead something much more prayer-like and reflective. (In fact, I think Johnny started up bow!) Rather than overplaying it based on the elevated way we tend to perceive the piece, he gave it no more or less significance than any other movement in the collection. It remained a dance, not a somber dirge. It did not jar the listener from the totality of the musical arc. It was perfection.
One of the Chaconne’s variations (starting around bar 65) involves florid 32nd notes, broken briefly by 16th notes. There is a wonderful Yiddish term, davening, which almost defies translation, but musically to me the term evokes the melismatic wails of the cantors of yore. To my ears, Johnny was davening at this point in the Chaconne. Bar lines were blurred and the passage became an overall entreaty to a higher power. But Johnny never went over the top. In fact, it was the Fuga in Sonata No. 3 (C major) when Johnny delivered the true fireworks.
Remember that exercise in composition class when you had to circle the “important” notes in a fugue to make sure they weren’t overpowered by the secondary tones? Johnny was definitely in class that day! I was looking right at him, but couldn’t believe my eyes or ears. He had the ability to seemingly play at two dynamic levels simultaneously. The ear (and mind) followed the melodic train, while he would literally “hint” at the harmony through the most subtle and gracious inference of another note within the chord. It was remarkable. I felt as if I were sitting within arms’ length of a magician and still couldn’t figure out from whence the dove emerged!
Only in a Live Performance
One of my favorite moments came when Johnny started Sonata No. 2 (A minor). He played the opening four-part chord, then shook his head slightly and said, “I’m going to start again.” The chord sounded fine to me. But I admired him for feeling comfortable enough with the setting and his audience to know that he could regroup, for whatever reason he might have had.
Another moment came when Johnny was poised to begin the second partita. I watched him inhale and begin to bring the bow down upon the string. Just before he did, he stopped, tightened his bow, and apologetically said, “I’ve been wanting to do that for 30 minutes.”
At one point, he asked the audience how many of us were from Knoxville. Although Big Ears draws a huge crowd of out-of-towners, this audience was filled with Knoxvillians. His response, which seemed completely genuine, was, “You’re so lucky to live here! I wish we had something like Big Ears in New York.” Needless to say, that drew great laugher. And while he quickly amended his remarks to note that New York clearly hosts much great music, he said Big Ears is where musicians come to perform the music “we love and are passionate about.”
In a poignant moment, Johnny mentioned that he noticed on social media there was a March for Our Lives in Knoxville earlier that day, a version of the national march taking place in D.C. against gun violence in schools. He said his playing schedule had not allowed him to participate, which saddened him as he wanted to do something. He realized one thing he could do was to donate the proceeds of any CD sales following his concert that evening. In keeping with his overall demeanor, his brief remarks were heartfelt, moving, and appropriate.
Humility and Class
Humility is a quality that I admire and find to be in short supply. Johnny, however, possesses it in abundance. And what better place to be humble than in the presence of Bach. Yes, Bach was an undisputed genius. On reading John Elliot Gardiner’s remarkable book “Bach: In the Castle of Heaven,” it became evident that even more remarkable than Bach’s genius was his work ethic. Johnny seemed to channel Bach’s single-minded purpose.
It is not known whether the Sonatas and Partitas were performed during Bach’s lifetime. A highly-skilled violinist himself, Bach seemed to be exploring the capabilities of this simple wooden box with strings. Johnny did the same. He seemed to be composing as he played. Making it up as he went along. “Ah, there’s a nice chord I can interject!” The result was music that seemed completely spontaneous and authentic.
All About Bach
Back to Bach. I will close with a beautiful passage written by John Eliot Gardiner: “For this is what is so distinctive when we compare Bach’s legacy to that of his forerunners and successors. Monteverdi gives us the full gamut of human passions in music, the first composer to do so; Beethoven tells us what a terrible struggle it is to transcend human frailties and to aspire to the Godhead; and Mozart shows us the kind of music we might hope to hear in heaven. But it is Bach, making music in the Castle of Heaven, who gives us the voice of God — in human form. He is the one who blazes a trail, showing us how to overcome our imperfections through the perfections of his music: to make divine things human and human things divine.”
For me, this concert truly made divine things human and human things divine. I am grateful to have been able to hear this magnificent music performed with such grace, dignity, and reverence. Bach was given the respect he is forever due. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve had a habit of imagining long-dead composers sitting in the back of the audience listening to modern day performances. In my mind, Bach was there on Saturday night listening to Johnny. His toes were tapping, there was a trace of a smile on his serious face, and he was thinking, “Well done, young man, well done.”
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