Friday , 26 April 2019
Bach in the saddle again!

Bach in the saddle again!

Luis Dias

From the time I heard Winston Collaco’s violin pupil Anthea Luna-Marie Dias when she played in our ensemble Camerata Child’s Play India at our Christmas concert in 2016 (she was just ten then), I’ve wanted to give her an opportunity to make a concerto debut. And I’m glad to announce that the moment is finally here: on July 28 at Menezes Braganza hall, at Child’s Play India Foundation’s annual monsoon concert, Anthea will be playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s lovely violin concerto in A minor, BWV 1041. She will be leading from the violin, the musicians of Winston’s Escola Amadeus String Ensemble (EASE) and Camerata Child’s Play India, as part of Child’s Play’s ‘Young Performers’ series. This is literally music to Goa’s ears, and a huge milestone in Goa’s music history. I don’t think a 12-year old home-grown, locally-trained Goan child has ever played a whole concerto in public here ever before. My only regret is that we didn’t do this earlier.

I have myself been Winston’s student back in the 1980s (it seems like another lifetime) even though I am younger than him by only just a couple of years, and watching him work with Anthea and the rest of his students took me back to those days. My own students think I’m a bit of an intonation policeman, but he’s even fussier about intonation than me, which validates my own obsession even further. And he will persevere for ages at rehearsal to clean up the minutest details, sometimes in just a bar or two, until it is sorted.

And there was another surprise for me: the return to musical action of another old friend, taking up double-bass for the demanding basso continuo line that runs right through the concerto: Edgar Mendes, whose musical history with me precedes even my friendship with Winston. Our friendship goes back to our days together, first at St Cecilia musical school, and later at Academia da Música (today’s Kala Academy department of Western Music). All three of us have played in the orchestra led by Fr Lourdino Barreto in Goa, and were in the Goan contingent of the Bombay Chamber Orchestra in the 1980s and 1990s.Today’s generation get paid airfares for such excursions, but you really haven’t lived if you haven’t hurtled down the Goa-Bombay highway in an interstate Kadamba bus that is trying hard to cross the sound barrier (and sometimes succeeding!), while you hug your instrument-case in your lap for dear life!

What a difference a double-bass makes, especially in this composition! It gives the whole work so much more body, texture and grounding.  For the most part, our Camerata Child’s Play India has largely performed without double-bass since its inception in 2013, so it is really wonderful, and gives a delicious vibration to the core of one’s being to have it on board.

It feels so good, the three of us from an earlier generation reuniting to make music and create opportunities and platforms for GenNext that we didn’t ourselves always receive.

If one considers that Johann Sebastian Bach fathered twenty children (he became a daddy for the first time aged 23, and the last was born when he was 57! Sadly only ten survived into adulthood), one wonders how he ever found the time for his duties as an employed musician and teacher, let alone his prodigious output of compositions. It also left the thorny issue of how his musical legacy would be divided among his heirs after his death. Most of his compositions were divided between his two oldest living sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. While the latter son took good care of his share of the legacy, Wilhelm Friedemann, despite showing great musical promise, fell into hard times and sold some of his father’s masterpieces to pay off debts, and these are deemed ‘lost’ to posterity. Bach almost certainly wrote many more than the three violin concertos we know about today; some still survive in other forms, such as harpsichord concertos, while individual movements have probably been incorporated into the body of Bach’s cantatas.One lives in constant hope that an exciting discovery could still be made on some dusty library shelf or attic. Stranger things have happened; if works by Vivaldi could surface in our time, so could those by Bach.

Musicologists aren’t unanimous about when this particular concerto, in A minor, was written: while it was “generally thought” that Bach wrote it while he was Kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Köthen (1717-23), it now seems more likely he wrote it during his Leipzig period, sometime in the 1730s.

In his Weimar years (1708-1717), Bach encountered concertos by his Italian contemporaries such as Albinoni and others, but Vivaldi proved the biggest influence upon Bach’s own concerto writing. This ‘Venetian’ or Vivaldian model gives this concerto its three-movement (fast-slow-fast; Allegro – Andante- Allegro assai) formal layout, the basic ritornello (the “little return”) structure of an alternating pattern of solo and tutti (ensemble) episodes, seen most strikingly in the first movement.

But although the mould may be Vivaldian, Bach transcends it, taking it to a completely new level as only he could: the ostinato (insistent, persistent) bass motif in the beautiful second movement is a particularly Bachian fingerprint, something that he seems to use in some shape or form in the second movements of all his violin concertos.The final movement is in the metre and rhythm of a gigue, the lively Baroque dance which was inspired by the Irish jig. Even here, Bach innovates by introducing subtle counterpoint in the accompaniment, with the main theme presented by the first violins, then followed in turn by the seconds, violas and bass. He writes a virtuosic bariolage passage for the soloist in its climax. The term bariolage comes from the French ‘barioler’, ‘to streak with several colours’. It is a term easier demonstrated on the instrument than explained in words; but essentially involves rapid alternation of a static note (usually an open string) with changing notes on an adjacent string above or below, that form a dazzling melody. The device exploits the contrast between the timbre of the open string and the stopped string.

Johann Sebastian Bach is associated so much with the keyboard because of his formidable legacy for that instrument, that it is easy to forget he was a highly skilled violinist as well. This is amply evident in his sublime writing for solo violin in the six works (three sonatas and three partitas) for solo violin, and another good example of bariolage is to be found in the Preludio to his third Partita in E major.

The monsoon concert will also feature the Child’s Play Chorus with an array of songs ranging from Africa to Hollywood; and the junior Camerata Child’s Play with a Latin American orchestral suite, a medley of Goandulpods, and a kaleidoscope of other works by our violin, viola, cello and flute students. Donation passes at Furtados Music stores in Panaji and Margão.

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