The curious, the faithful, and the hopheads gathered in great numbers Sunday at Aeronaut Brewing Company in Somerville for “Music in Familiar Spaces,” as Steuart Pincombe played Bach’s first three Suites for Cello Solo and suds.
Bach’s Cello Suites stand as the Mt. Everest for cellists. We don’t know as much as we would like about their origin; they date from around 1720 and may have been composed with a performer in mind. We have a manuscript in Anna Magdalena Bach’s hand, and the fifth suite exists in J.S.’s hand in a version for lute. (Is that the chicken or the egg?) In his 2009 monograph Unaccompanied Bach, David Ledbetter argues for connections among all of the solo works despite instrument. Certainly the music represents a compositional challenge of crafting harmony in multiple voices on melodic instruments. Today these suites are ubiquitous, thanks to Casals, and interpretative opinions are as plentiful as there are cellists. In writing this review I realized I own at least 15 versions and have heard many more in concert. Certainly Steuart Pincombe sets himself quite the task.
Husband and wife Steuart and Michelle Pincombe (violinist and vocalist) are the driving force behind “Music in Familiar Spaces.” After degrees from Oberlin, Steuart embarked on a career in Baroque cello in the Netherlands. The peripatetic demands of that life led them to embark on their current journey: spending the year living in a 1959 Airstream-esque travel trailer, supporting themselves through musicmaking performed outside traditional concert halls for “at will” donations. You can read more about this voyage here. As for the project, it recalls Matt Haimovitz beginning in 2004 bringing Bach to bars. The idea is to return classical music to the everyday lives of contemporary people, and it is a laudable goal. For the Pincombes, it is an expression of their passion for connecting people through music. Certainly bars (cafés, too) are communal spaces, more interactive than restaurants and even moreso than modern concert halls. The turnout Sunday night attests to this desire for harmonious fellowship: Aeronaut reached maximum capacity 15 minutes before the show, and the line of people waiting to get in (some 80 deep) stretched to the end of the block. And they say classical music is moribund….
With unconventional spaces can come acoustic challenges. Aeronaut is not only a pub and food hub, but also a brewery. The cavernous space is filled with fermenting tanks. Seated near the cellist, I still had to work to hear him over the ambient noise of food and drink service, dishwasher, fan, and so on. It is not for the faint of heart nor those committed to pin-drop silence when hearing their music. Then again, part of this project is to question that restriction placed on classical music and reintegrate it into the lives of performers and audiences. As Michelle announced before Steuart began the concert, “The cello is not an amplified instrument.” This was even truer since he was playing an instrument with gut strings and Baroque bow. I can’t help thinking this program would work better in a traditional pub sans industrial appliances—freer of the noise which punctuates our days.
With each of the three suites came a beer pairing drawn from Aeronaut’s trove: A Session with Dr. Nandu for the first; stout for the second; and Sour Sauvin for the third. (I sampled the first and third, in the interests of accurate reporting. Not a beer aficionado, I leave further remarks on this topic to our intrepid commentators.) I looked for a more organic linkage between the aural and the gustatory; remarks by Aeronaut co-founder Ben Holmes clarified that the beers were chosen because of experiential and temporal connections to the composition of the music. (Brief discussion may be heard here, and sample movements here.)
The program called for Suites I, II, and III; to accommodate the crowd who were admitted late, the first suite was repeated again at the end. Pincombe read from the A. M. Bach manuscript, adding judicious ornamentation during performance. He is clearly swayed by Anner Bylsma, finding meaning and the necessary interpretative clues in the manuscript notations.
Played in numeric order, there can be a deep logic to these three works. Consistencies throughout the evening revealed Pincombe’s thinking. His decisions, as unusual as the venue, included strong contrasts and a wide dynamic range. Preludes tended to have an improvisatory fantasia character, and tempi remained constant across movements, especially in the second suite, with extensive rubato providing contrast and agogic accent. I heard some anachronisms: to take the third prelude as an illustrative example, the tempo was so fast the notes blurred, with only the shapes of lines remaining evident. I missed the greater specificity that comes from the notes having a chance to breathe.
Pincombe, I think, is asking a Baroque instrument setup to perform like a modern one. This is certainly a nod toward the experience of the music over time, but is it a fair demand to make? In all the dances except the minuets, the rubato obscured the rhythmic structure. Jean-Guihen Queyras (one of Pincombe’s teachers) plays the third suite at lightning speed (to my ears); still, each movement dances. Could Pincombe retain the character and the rhythm of the dance yet achieve similar ends on a Baroque cello?
The curious can hear another “Music in Familiar Spaces” on Thursday, May 19th at 7:30pm in First Baptist Church Needham, featuring early shape-note tradition in America. And there (only onsite, not online) they can purchase a flash drive encased in bamboo, branded with Pincombe’s mark, containing his 2008 recordings of all six Bach suites performed on a modern instrument, but with historic inflection.