William Shaub told me about his brainchild to present Bach’s colossal canon of Sonatas & Partitas using multiple violinists from the orchestra, I was skeptical (to say the least). Skeptical, yet very, very intrigued.I’m not one of those people who think there are no bad ideas. I’ve spent 30 years in corporate America. Trust me. There are lots of bad ideas. (New Coke, anyone?) So when Knoxville Symphony Orchestra (KSO) Concertmaster
William’s idea by the numbers…
This was Will’s basic pitch:
Will found a willing co-conspirator at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville. “It sounded crazy,” said Glenn Kahler, the Cathedral’s Director of Music and Liturgy. “But I knew if it worked, it would be something unique that I wanted on our concert series.” (Glenn’s logic brings to mind Albert Einstein’s reported quote: “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”)
The hardened skeptic in me wondered (not without irony): What could possibly go wrong?
But once I shrugged off my cynical musician cloak and allowed myself to get caught up in the exuberance of these violinists, I realized there was not just novelty to the idea, but merit as well. Oh, and the good will that stems from a group of musicians who see value in a true collaboration with orchestral colleagues and want to make a contribution to their community. A heartwarming and all-too-rare combination.
Wanna play some unaccompanied Bach?
The genesis of the project started with Will’s recognition of the talent in the KSO's 1st and 2nd violin sections. “I work with these violinists every day and I’m consistently inspired,” said Will. “They come from the best music schools all over the world. I truly believe we’re fortunate to have these musical voices in our orchestra and I wanted these voices to be heard.”
The 10 violinists he recruited, all “core” KSO musicians, were willing and eager to participate. Violinist Audrey Pride noted, “It’s a huge opportunity to perform Bach’s incredible music with my colleagues in a sacred space, away from the concert hall.”
Pick a movement, any movement…
The process began with a spreadsheet. Simply fill in the movements you’d like to play. While this could have resulted in a musical “Sophie’s choice,” happily there were no conflicts. Players naturally gravitated to the movements they felt comfortable playing and in a sweet moment of natural selection, there were no duels at sundown over any specific gigue or courante.
One might have anticipated some fighting over the famous Chaconne, but it had one lone taker — violinist Sean K. Claire, a seasoned professional with previous experience performing this monumental dance. The movement that became the musical equivalent of a fly on the wedding cake was the fiendishly-difficult Fuga (Sonata #3 in C major). Will had little choice but to personally sign up for this bow-buster. (Talk about taking one for the team!)
The rules and the non-rules…
HIP (historically informed performance) or non-HIP, that was the question? Will made it crystal clear to his fellow violinists that he wanted each performer “to give his or her own persuasive interpretation.”
These were the basic rules and non-rules:
When asked how Bach himself might have responded to such a concept, Will enthusiastically replied, “Bach was all about breaking boundaries. He wasn’t afraid to be interesting. Remember, Bach transcribed his own music for different instruments. He gave himself that freedom, so my hope is he would take delight in our approach.”
The benefits of Bach…
The 11 violinists will perform this concert without pay. They all agreed the concert needed to benefit the community — both musically and financially. Perhaps the biggest discussion point was where concert funds would be donated. In true democratic fashion, the players made suggestions and, ultimately, a vote was taken. FISH Hospitality Pantries — a non-profit that focuses on “what more can be done to help ensure everyone gets enough to eat” — was the winning choice. Audrey noted, “It’s great to know I can make a positive, tangible impact locally simply by playing my violin.”
The concert will have other beneficiaries — notably, the 11 violinists who have this rare opportunity to perform some of Bach’s greatest music in a stunning venue. “As orchestral musicians,” Audrey added, “we spend time critically preparing our own parts. When we come together to perform, we’re often absorbed in our personal efforts and don’t realize the impact we have on our audience.”
Elaborating further on the nature of orchestral playing and the inevitable challenge of balancing ensemble and solo perspectives, Will added, “You enter music school with your own musical voice. And while playing in an orchestra has tremendous rewards, it’s a challenge to maintain your voice and keep your playing at its highest level. When we take the stage to perform these masterpieces, we’ll do so as equals — equals who all have a voice that deserves to be heard. There will be no seating chart. No pecking order. No hierarchy. We will simply be 11 violinists bringing our own individual history to this music and our personal love of Bach.”
The week after the concert, the cadre of violinists will return to their orchestral sections for Beethoven’s “Eroica” and other symphonic masterworks. With hope, they will return to their seats with the lingering memory of having their unique voices really and truly heard.
Concert information: Friday, February 7, 7:00 p.m., Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Knoxville, TN. Free admission, but tickets are encouraged as seating is limited. Tickets available at EventBrite, the Paraclete Books and Gifts Store (located on the Cathedral campus) 865.588-0338, or at the door one hour before the concert.
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