Great Barrington – It’s supposed to be an educational experience when you attend a Close Encounters With Music (CEWM) concert. It should begin with a brief lecture by CEWM founder and Artistic Director Yehuda Hanani. But CEWM’s “The Intimate Bach” program at the newly renovated Saint James Place on February 18 departed from the norm. Mr. Hanani’s opening remarks were, as usual, concise, lucid, and on point. (Nobody ever gets lost in one of Hanani’s lectures.) This time, though, the educational experience was richer than ever, thanks to the untimely indisposition of Kivie Cahn-Lipman’s Baroque cello. His antique instrument was in the repair shop on February 18, so Mr. Cahn-Lipman modified his modern cello to make it sound like the Baroque instrument and explained, in an unscheduled bonus lecture, how he had effected the transformation. (It’s mainly a matter of switching to gut strings.) The talk was unexpectedly fascinating, and the crowd loved it.
The evening’s program consisted of three suites for unaccompanied cello by Johann Sebastian Bach performed alternately by Yehuda Hanani and Kivie Cahn-Lipman. Bach wrote six cellos suites, and they’ve been among his most respected and popular works ever since cellist Pablo Casals released his recordings of them in the 1930s. At that time, the world had nearly forgotten these suites. But today, they’re among the most recognized and performed solo cello works of all time, and that’s possibly because J. S. Bach was a good deal better at writing virtually polyphonic music than any composer who ever lived, including Mozart and Beethoven.
In his pre-concert talk, Mr. Hanani made a convincing case that Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites include a bit more accompaniment than we had supposed. True, these pieces are scored for exactly one cellist. But they do include accompaniment if you count all the melody notes plus quite a few others that, together, spell out implied three- to four-voice polyphonic harmonies of the
kind J. S. Bach is famous for. This feature makes the solo cello suites ideal for studying, understanding, and enjoying the intricately beautiful inner workings of Bach’s miraculous harmonic writing. Enjoying Bach in full-blown glorious detail is something both Yehuda Hanani and Kivie Cahn-Lipman have been doing as a matter of course all their lives. They revel in it. They deeply enjoy every Bach performance they give, and their joy is critically important to the audiences for whom they perform. Because, at the end of the day, it’s not performance technique that makes their concert performances compelling. It’s their love of the music, no matter the composer.
Of course, Bach’s most ingenious intricacies of polyphonic harmony translate, especially in the case of his cello suites, into an exceedingly difficult performance task that’s daunting even for the most accomplished cellist. Yo-Yo Ma, for instance, likes to play all six suites in one sitting. And — in lengthier concert programs — so do Hanani and Cahn-Lipman, who, having long ago fallen in love with and memorized the Bach cello suites, enjoy membership in a small and exclusive club of Bach-cello-suite masters.
On February 18, there was no mistaking the crowd’s reception either of the evening’s program or its performers. Standing ovations speak volumes, and on this particular night, such was the audience’s language of choice.