16 February 2017

Oakland Civic Orchestra: Winter Set: The Bach Double

Every violinist in this (or any) orchestra has played this double violin concerto (universally known simply as "the Bach Double") --- and usually more than once so one plays both first and second violin at some point. Usually it is one of the first concerti violinists learn once they have moved beyond first to third and fifth positions. We don't all get to play it with an orchestra but we all tend to get to play it with our teachers or a mentor or friend at some relatively early point in our violin careers. And yet, like all such things it is an incredibly demanding concerto, not technically perhaps, but emotionally and musically. When violinists return to it as adults (if they have played it as younger students) they find a "new" piece entirely. What is most striking is the way the voices are so incredibly balanced as well as how they echo, blend, intertwine, and hand off passages. The second movement in particular remains the most beautiful I know for two violins.

When I prepared this movement with my own teacher --- after we had gotten all the fingerings and bowings down (for I had not played this as a younger student so it was all new) --- we moved onto the task of  "making music" of the notes. The approach reminded me of some of the dimensions of spiritual direction and/or growth work. First we went through the entire movement deciding on what emotion we would like each passage or section to express, what emotions or feelings the passage evoked in us and those we wanted to evoke in listeners, where it changed in intensity and how abruptly, what it changed to, where we were in tension with one another, where in union, and so forth. Though the musical term for much of this is "dynamics" our vocabulary was first of all that of feelings and nuances of feelings. Then we went through the music again and, as we stopped at the places we had noted emotions, each of us privately made a note about some memory which clearly evoked those feelings for us. The memories remained private but the awe or tenderness or pain or determination --- or whatever it was we personally poured into this music and expressed through it was communal; the intimacy of the experience was and still is hard to describe. (Check the looks exchanged by the two soloists at the end of the third movement in the above video; through all of their own rehearsals and especially in this performance Christina and Thomas have shared something both transcendent and ineffably intimate. They are not merely demonstrating that they are relieved or pleased with the technical performance --- though both of these might also be true.)

At every point my teacher and I had to listen and listen profoundly in attempting to interpret this piece of music --- not only to be faithful to the truth Bach captured there in the manuscript itself, but to our own hearts and the hearts and voices of one another as we attempted to come together in a single unified performance. a single unified heart and voice. In the language of the Camaldolese we were "alone together" in this amazing process.  This was one of the most transcendent experiences I have ever had apart from formal prayer periods --- and one of the most potent experiences of the paradox of solitude in community.  In  some ways I am sure my own sensitivity to the communal nature of eremitical solitude is formed or at least heightened by my experience of learning and playing this concerto.


A note on the video: In the performance by the OCO and soloists Christina Owens and Thomas Chow you might note that Christina is playing in the Baroque style as violinists would have played Bach's music. She uses little or no vibrato creating a characteristic sound. Thomas tends to be using a more contemporary style with less than usual vibrato but still using it in many instances. Both are also using modern violins and modern bows rather than Baroque instruments or bows. Finally the orchestra is taking their cues by attending to the soloists; there is no conductor. I can't remember another time OCO has played a piece in this manner --- also pretty typical of the Baroque approach to string orchestras and soloists.