Rockport Music’s new Shalin Liu Performance Center, an elegant and richly appointed concert space perched on the Atlantic Ocean shore of Sandy Bay, was home to the luminous virtuosity of violinist Nicholas Kitchen on Sunday, March 20th.The hall proved an ideal acoustic and visual complement to the program Kitchen brought with him: all J. S. Bach for solo violin, some of the loftiest and most challenging of all music written thus far for this instrument. In a happy conjunction, this concert was offered on the weekend celebrated world-wide as Bach’s Birthday.
Recently, under the auspices of the venerable Cambridge Society For Early Music, Kitchen played five concerts of this music in five similarly intimate venues, and it was my privilege to have attended two of these, well, events, as in sum they transcended the mere description of “concert.” How so, you might ask?
Well, first of all, Kitchen is a musician of extraordinary talent. He plays with beautiful tone, soulfully and always dead-in-tune, no matter what the repertoire he essays. No matter how long or challenging his concerts, he rarely if ever shows any sign of strain or fatigue. Further, he is an extremely thoughtful player. One hears this a number of ways: his skillful and engaging from-the-stage chats with his audience inform and enlighten. His knowledge of repertoire is vast and thought-provoking, especially telling when he invokes examples of music to make a point about the music he is about to play. In Rockport, for example, he illustrated one of his discussions by playing the opening subject of Bach’s famous organ Passacaglia. To further make his point he then played the opening fugue subjects of the first five preludes and fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier as a means of showing how differently structured the melodic lines of those works were from the music Bach had composed for solo violin. From another presenter, this talking from the stage could stray into hubristic pedantry. From Kitchen, it was a welcome and high-minded elevation of the proceedings.
Kitchen happily embraces modern technology when he plays. First-time attendees of his concerts are often amused and intrigued to see that his “music stand” holds not a paper instrumental part but an Apple laptop computer, the illuminated screen of which displays the music he will perform.
Kitchen brings with him yet another extraordinary bit of technology. He projects an enlargement of Bach’s instrumental score onto a large screen to one side of him as he plays. This affords the music-reading members of his audience the remarkably involving opportunity to follow Bach’s musical text while listening to him play. But this experience is kicked up yet another notch. The score projected on the screen is not mere notes — it is the image of the actual handwritten autograph score as set down in pen and ink on paper by Johann Sebastian Bach himself.
As a musician, this creates for me a very special and almost indescribable sensation. It’s one very significant thing, of course, to hear a concert so gorgeously played as was this. It’s another to have the score of the music clearly projected on a screen so that one may follow it. But to see Bach’s own elegant calligraphy as the visual complement to the simultaneous and equally beautiful live ministrations of Kitchen somehow elevates the concert experience to a near-spiritual occasion, almost as if Herr Bach’s presence were palpable in the room. [Ed: see the BMInt article here.]
Before he began to play, Kitchen opined that most student violinists, when first shown these fiendish works by Bach for solo violin envision the notes as “…a bleak field of torture,” an amusing characterization that brought forth chuckles from the audience. He then went on to explain that these complex works, when boiled down to their very basic structures, are based on pairs and radially symmetrical spirals. He illustrated that as one passes through the three Sonatas and three ”Partias” (sic — that is how Bach inexplicably wrote their titles in his manuscripts, though today we call them Partitas), the keys progress from doleful minor settings into ultimately exultant majors. This would be the order in which Kitchen would play his selections. He also pointed out that 1720, the year in which these six works were completed, was a turning point in Bach’s life. His first wife Maria Barber had just died, and he had subsequently married Anna Magdelena. Perhaps the minor-key works, including the famous Ciaccona from the D-minor Partia No. 2 symbolized Bach’s sadness at losing Maria, and the ensuing major-key works show Bach’s increasing happiness (thirteen children’s worth!) with Anna Magdalena?
In any event, Kitchen made the strongest possible case for each of the works he performed in the following order: two excerpts from the Sonata No. 1 in G-minor, BWV 1001; the complete Parti(t)a No. 1 in B-minor, BWV 1002; the Grave and Fuga from the Sonata No. 2 in A-minor; After intermission and another enlightening discussion, he continued with the towering Ciaccona from the Parti(t)a No. 2 in D-minor, BWV 1004; the complete Sonata No. 3 in C-major, BWV 1005, with its similarly towering Fuga; and as a dramatic ending to his recital, the brilliant Preludio from the Parti(t)a No. 3 in E-major, BWV 1006, which Kitchen played immediately without pause at the conclusion of the prior work. Enthusiastic cheers and a deserved (for once) standing ovation ensued.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the beautiful violin Kitchen plays for his Bach recitals. It is a 1730 Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu, the “Baron Vitta,” once owned and played by one of Kitchen’s teachers, Szymon Goldberg. When Goldberg died in 1993 at the age of 84; his trust loaned the “Baron Vitta” to the Smithsonian. In the spring of 2007, Goldberg’s widow, pianist Miyoko Yamane, donated the “Baron Vitta” to the Library of Congress. In turn, the Library has loaned the violin to Nicholas Kitchen. The instrument has a deeply rich and burnished, golden timbre.
I used the term “high-minded” earlier in this article, and it surely also applies to this entire concert – its concept, its content, its realization. I urge all readers who have read this far in this very long piece to not miss the next opportunity to hear Nicholas Kitchen in recital or as leader of the Borromeos. You’ll be very happy indeed to have made his musical acquaintance.