Giving Back by Giving Bach

January 13, 2020, 12:38 PM · 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 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.

Bach violinists
(From left to right) Seven of the 11 violinists: Rachel Loseke, Kyle Venlet, I-Pei Lin, Audrey Pride, Zofia Glashauser, Sarah Ringer, William Shaub. Photo by Andy Bryenton.

William’s idea by the numbers…

This was Will’s basic pitch:

  1. Start with an energetic 27-year-old concertmaster.
  2. Bring in 10 additional solo violinists from the KSO.
  3. Program all 6 Sonatas & Partitas.
  4. Let each violinist play 2-4 movements.
  5. Present a total of 2-plus hours of music.

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.”

Knoxville Cathedral
Knoxville's Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

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:

  1. All bow styles and bow holds are welcome.
  2. Vibrate or don’t — it’s your choice.
  3. Memorize or don’t — again, it’s your choice. (More than half the violinists plan to perform by memory.)

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.

Featured violinists: Ruth Bacon, Sean K. Claire, Zofia Glashauser, I-Pei Lin, Rachel Loseke, Audrey Pride, Kyle Venlet, Edward Pulgar, Mary Pulgar, Sarah Ringer, and William Shaub.

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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January 13, 2020 at 10:56 PM · I've been to Knoxville a few times. Definitely a civilized place! Congratulations on this event, it sounds wonderful.

January 14, 2020 at 02:02 AM · What an interesting idea and worthy cause! Diana, your masterful description will sell us two tickets!

January 14, 2020 at 02:56 AM · There’s so much to be said about the impact that music has on each person. Audrey said: we “don’t realize the impact we have on our audience.” The impact is immeasurable, boundless and infinite and affects each person in such varied emotional ways. Thank you, Audrey (and every musician) for that impact! And a special thank you to Will, Sean and all the musicians whose time and talent given to this concert will benefit the community in so many ways.

I love that everyone will be able to “maintain his own voice” in this concert. The fact that each violinist can express his own love of Bach in his own way is just the tip of the iceberg of the magic, mystery and grandeur of music. But the voice of the orchestra, although not personal, is just as strong. It may be different from the voice of each musician but it has its own power. When these marvelous musicians (I’ve heard them many times and they are top-notch) return to the orchestra with the memory that their unique voices were heard, I hope they appreciate how meaningful the voice of the orchestra is also. They’ll be two for two.

I only wish I could attend this concert. But I have a rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet at Knoxville Opera that night and somehow, I don’t think they’d let me out even for this! Thanks for letting us know about this Diana. And Will, what a wonderful idea!

Oh! And I love Einstein’s quote you mentioned “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

January 14, 2020 at 03:29 AM · Paul: Thank you so much for the great comment! Come back to Knoxville. I'll save you a seat!

207: That's two "free" tickets I just sold you! Thank you for supporting this endeavor!

Joe: Your comment, as always, is golden. Thank you for reminding us that orchestras also have a unique voice. (And, no, you are not excused from "Romeo" rehearsal, unfortunately!)

January 14, 2020 at 12:35 PM · I wish I lived in Knoxville so I could hear this concert! Your description is captivating, and this sounds like a wonderful way to capture and appreciate those incredible solo voices within the orchestra. What a great concert for a fantastic cause. Bravo to all involved!

January 14, 2020 at 01:30 PM · Anyone who thinks that Bach is dry will change their mind after reading your delightful article. Are you planning to host the red carpet, pre-concert festivities? I'd love to hear your banter about Bach between movements.

January 14, 2020 at 02:16 PM · Great idea! Twenty years ago, I was principal violist in the Knoxville Symphony... so my only criticism is they should be having the *viola* players do this, too!

I wish I could go. My wife Tanya and I are going to Knoxville for the American Viola Society Festival in June. It'll be great to see everyone again and hear about the big Bach event.

January 14, 2020 at 03:21 PM · I'd love to hear this. I am generally in Knoxville for their opening season gala. I hope to make attending the opening season concert a personal tradition.

January 14, 2020 at 03:25 PM · Scott: I had no idea you were a KSO alum! I'll pass your *viola* suggestion on to Will! And I will look for you in June! (P.S. Your blog on playing all the S&Ps and Suites at the bar was incredible!)

Jocelyn: Thank you for your comment! I'm delighted to know that you are a "musical visitor" here!

54: Thank you! I wish you could be here as well.

83: Ha! Red carpet and between-movement commentary are wonderful ideas!! Thank you!

98: Great! See you there!

January 14, 2020 at 05:07 PM · Diana, thanks for the heads-up. We'll be there.

January 14, 2020 at 06:18 PM · I don't quite understand the skepticism that everyone is supposed to have felt at first about this endeavor. I find this idea great at first encounter. It seems to me that this model ought to be followed by any performance or recording of a cycle of works such as Beethoven's complete quartets or sonatas or Haydn's "68". Instead--as is commonly done--having one musician / ensemble play the whole set one assembles a group and has everybody play the pieces they have the most intense relationship with, then assembles the set from those fragments.

Would this not give a much more interesting view on the whole cycle than one person's idea--where that person would know some of the pieces extremely well and others hardly more than necessary for the preparation of the set? Wouldn't it highlight contrasts in the set and different ways of approaching it etc.?

January 14, 2020 at 06:56 PM · Albrecht: Your comment is exemplary! My initial skepticism, I believe, stemmed entirely out of a mindset that was locked into the way things are always done. In truth, this is a much more interesting approach than hearing one artist. (By the way, my colleague, Glenn, was solidly in your camp from the outset. His notion of "crazy" was simply his view that although this wasn't typically done, it was potentially far more interesting.) Your final sentence really says it all -- that it will "highlight contrasts in the set and different ways of approaching it." I know that is certainly what Will hopes. Thank you for taking the time to comment!

January 15, 2020 at 08:23 PM · I remember William Shaub from when he was a (very advanced!) student at the Starling-DeLay Symposium, years ago. How wonderful that he is going beyond the call of duty as concertmaster, and putting together something like this. Very inspired!

January 15, 2020 at 11:34 PM · Laurie: I actually first learned of Will through as part of your coverage of Starling-DeLay. Will has made a huge impact on our community and is simply a wonderful person (not to mention, an absolutely beautiful violinist). Thank you for giving me the forum to write about this endeavor!

January 16, 2020 at 01:24 AM · Fantastic! What a great opportunity for the violinists - performing one movement of the formidable, well known, well loved S&P, in a hall with great acoustics, with complete freedom artistically, for the benefit of an excellent charity. Also a great opportunity for the audience to hear a smorgasbord performance by top notch orchestral musicians without well established careers as soloists, each playing with complete artistic freedom and showcasing his / her own personal style. I wish I could attend. I hope that other orchestras will put on similar concerts.

January 16, 2020 at 03:09 PM · Pauline: Thank you for your absolutely lovely comment! I wish you could attend as well. It really is such a great opportunity for these violinists and from what I hear, they are all extremely excited about it. Thanks again!

January 17, 2020 at 01:52 AM · Sounds like it will be a wonderful concert. Wish I could be there to hear it!

January 17, 2020 at 04:02 PM · 152: I wish you could be there also! I hope to write a follow-up article!

January 18, 2020 at 06:16 AM · Great programming idea. I am forwarding the thought to our orchestra manager. Ditto on using Violas, they can play both the Cello suites and (Maybe most) the Violin sonatas. Scott's performance of Both sets is a most impressive achievement.

January 18, 2020 at 03:58 PM · Joel: Thanks so much for your comment! It reminds me that a cellist friend of mine sent me a note after reading this article. He said he leads a cello workshop in Kentucky and they take this approach with the Cello Suites. And I completely agree that Scott's performance was absolutely phenomenal!

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