Tuesday, January 13, 2009

James Wilson: Bach Cello Suites 2, 3 and 6

James Wilson began the Richmond Festival of Music 7 or 8 years ago when he lived in Richmond and played with the Shanghai Quartet, and the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia, which presented this solo concert, is the current form of that project. I am a volunteer with CMSCVA.

For a Tuesday night performance of some of Bach's more esoteric music, this concert was remarkably well-attended -- proof, maybe, that once Richmond feels it has created a star, that star will always shine bright in our firmament.

Of course, Wilson IS an amazing cellist. I know all the Bach cello suites very well--but primarily through recordings. Hearing Wilson perform them live was revelatory. In his hands, each suite took on more personality than can be conveyed on a record or CD.

Wilson began with #3, a busybody of a work. He played it fast and thrillingly, but not melodramatically, like I've heard some recordings. The "Bourree" movement put me in mind of a beautiful hand-blown glass paperweight, perfectly formed and shining within itself. He played the final "Gigue" for a jokester, emphasizing the contrasts between heavy and light.

I've always heard Suite #2 as a cloudy-day piece, and I had been thinking of the first movement all day in anticipation. Wilson gave it even more complexity. Did you know dotted-note ryhthms could be sarcastic? You should his interpretation of the "Allemande." The "Sarabande" became a defiant youth who eventually softened and conceded kinship to the rest of the suite.

Bach wrote Suite #6 for a 5-stringed instrument that no longer exists. Playing the piece on a 4-stringed cello is hard. Wilson's sound was light and clean, with slightly slower tempos than in the other two suites. It occured to me--hearing this performance live--that this piece is somehow the most modern-sounding of the suites (they were written circa 1720) and the most early-music-sounding--while still unmistakably Bach-sounding.

Maybe because it was written for more strings, Wilson played #6 with more everything: the "Sarabande" was full of more love, the "Gavottes" and "Gigue" full of more dancing. But I think there was something else at work...

As a body of music, the Bach cello suites are like the 99 names of God, and a cellist can spend a lifetime meditating upon them, and will never learn the 100th name. They are simultaneously simple and demanding; infinitely renewable; enigmatic.

In his program notes, Wilson writes, "Because the interpretation of these pieces is so personal, when I perform them I feel more as if I am baring my soul than playing a concert."

This makes sense to me. I'm a cellist who has performed bits and pieces of Suites 1 and 3 (and let's be clear... I'm in the single digits when it comes to names of God). Before a Bach cello suite performance, the cellist worries: will they understand? But that is what the music itself is asking of the musician.

When a musician strives to truly, selflessly understand a piece of music, I think that's when the magic happens that makes the playing of it seem effortless to the audience. Tonight in the performance of Suite #6, even in the cunningly difficult last two movements, and more than in #3 and #2, Jim Wilson was making that magic. I think that love--which is not effortless--is somehow related to this, and maybe even works the same way.

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