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Bach and Friends Please Birthday Celebrants

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The Saturday afternoon concert offerings at First Lutheran Church’s Boston Bach Birthday celebration introduced three solo performers who brought the old composer’s music to life again in starkly different ways. The days second half began when organist Jerrick Cavagnaro launched into a set of ‘Bach and Friends’ which paired the music of the 339-year-old master with that of his teacher, Dietrich Buxtehude, and Nicolas de Grigny, a French contemporary. Whatever lethargy may have been instilled in us from the delicious luncheon offerings of German goodies in the church’s undercroft was shaken off with the startling e-major opening chord of BWV 566, the Prelude & Fugue in E heard in the technicolor relief of the organs Kellner temperament. Cavagnaro presented the piece from Bach’s juvenilia (though its authorship is not undisputed) inline with his interpretation of the other Bachianas pieces. He used a very subtle inegal touch for the piece’s fantastic sections and delivered the fugal subjects with the sweetest lyricism. The same can be said of his delivery of BWV 540, the great Toccata and Fugue in F. The piece’s treacherous fugue didn’t startle the evenhanded keyboardist, and he even implemented the pedal trills as gingerly as a vocalist. His toccata exuded the excitement of breathless children on Christmas morning eagerly awaiting their prize. A fellow organist seated behind me commented “that’s charming” at its conclusion. For both works, Cavagnaro used a registration of reedy watercolors and pastel flutes, reserving the instruments most vibrant oils for Buxtehude and the acrylics for de Gringy.

His unencumbered interpretation of Buxtehude’s Praeludium (in the no-better key of f-sharp minor), BuxWV 146 best showcased the versatility of First Lutheran’s remarkable Richards, Fowkes & Co. Opus 10 to construct a symphonic soundscape. Cavagnaro wisely dramatized the complex piece with subtle registrational changes throughout which were probably his most effective registrational choices of the recital. His creative orchestration of the prelude realized its unique multi-sub-section structure, highlighting topics of chorale passages and fugal variations. After the sublime choral that concludes the opening volante, Cavagnaro executed the first fugue with a stately, declamatory touch which naturally brought out the section’s shapely contours. For the second fugue, itself a bit of a variation on the first, he allowed himself much more rhetorical liberty to affect Buxtehude’s odd ditties that now adorn the theme. O how I wish he had brought this degree of flexibility to Bach’s similar cadenzas which came off as restrictively faithful to the score. These sections displayed the power and sensitivity of the organ’s reed stops (with even the vox humana getting an appropriate shout out), while the fugues utilized the full power of the neo-Baroque principal chorus. In the movement’s final fugue climax, Cavagnaro brought the organ to a fever pitch as counterpoint swirled and churned about the nave before crescendoing in an avalanche of arpeggios, trills, and languishing suspensions that finally settled onto a cheeky Picardy third.

Nicolas de Grigny is not the most obvious companion to JS that one could include, but his incorporation highlights a certain Baroque lyricism, expressed most poetically in his Tierce en taille, that pervades much of Bach’s great organ music, especially the fantasia from the G Minor Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 542. Cavagnaro concluded his program with this ideal pair. He registered de Grigny’s aria with the instrument’s uncompromisingly historic cornet (I was unable to identify if it used the work’s Nasat/Cornet III or the Rückpositiv’s quint/Sesquialtera II, but the 8’ stop in composition seemed to be the great Principal 8’, give the baritone solo line an incredible dark depth beneath the brilliant mutation stops). The piece’s vocality and harmonic crunch prepared the audience for the arresting opening to Bach’s fantasia which uses a similar structure of ornamented, polyphonic lines over heart-stopping dissonances. After the sublimely bel canto movements that displayed the performers capacity for organist-ic ornamentation, the fugue felt like a barreling freight train. The piece synthesized the best aspects of the preceding program while engaging our imaginations with evocative episodes that hinted at the rest of Bach’s great oeuvre. Subtle changes of touch and affect throughout the wide-ranging fugue’s narrative arc brought the music to life that way a great orator can tell a story.

Calvin Kotrba, a graduate piano student from Longy, followed Cavagnaro with an impressive performance of Bach’s Sixth French Suite in E Major, BWV 817. For the Suite, Kotrba used the church’s seldom heard Steinway piano situated in the gallery, just to the left of the organ. Its perch above the audience allowed it to speak with extreme clarity, magnifying the pianist’s marvelous sensitivity of touch while giving the music the softest effervescence of resonance. Despite being performed on a distinctly non-Baroque instrument, Kotrba’s execution of the piece contained all the articulative shading one could wish for from any performance on harpsichord. From the start, we were delighted by the ethereal sparkle that decked the Allemande and filled the room when accomplished at Glen Gould’s tempo-de-lickety-split. These qualities persisted to the suite’s dramatic fugal conclusion in the Gigue which was as vivacious as the beginning.

The most thrilling numbers, the Courante and Bourrée, excited several audience members to turn around (or to sit backwards in their pews) to watch Kotrba work as the music poured out over the railing and into the nave. The notes, as though dancing on the head of a pin, were imbued with a hectic, jocular character that only subsided (for a moment) at the conclusion of each miniature dance. Kotrba brought this attitude to even the polonaise which featured the only fleeting moments of real Steinway rumble, used so reservedly that it sounded like a humorous gong whack or timpani role in the Bacchanal suite. Some movements, like the Gavotte and Menuet, displayed a simple temperament that was nevertheless souring in its elegance. The recital’s emotional core came in the Sarabande, which Kotrba presented as an angelic prayer of harp-like patters that accompanied the sublime strains of counterpoint.

Violist Maren Rothfritz, the evening’s final recitalist, won the King Cake with an intriguing pairing of Bach and Hindemith. I was skeptical, too, but Rothfritz assured us in some remarks spoken before the performance that Bach’s Sixth Cello Suite (presented in an arrangement in G for viola) actually had much to do with Hindemith’s solo Viola Sonata, Op. 31, No. 4. She presented the first movement of sonata after the prelude of the suite, and the sonatas second movement, marked Lied, after the suite’s allemande. She argues that the first movements were moto perptuo pieces that extensively exploited the string instrument’s bariolage for color and texture. The second movements were similarly lyrical and full of melismatic 16th-and-32nd-note gestures. The unorthodox paring brought much sense to Hindemith’s cattywampus, and I would say that Rothfritz has struck the vein of inspiration with which Hindemith created his composition. Rothfritz seemingly-nonchalantly delivered Bach’s wicked hard prelude. Her colorful interpretation elegantly shaped the ritornello form about its fortspinung throughout a variety of keys. Every phrase was carefully shaped down to the subtle articulations of the metrical dactyls, which created an electrified the music. She applied equally beautiful shades of tone around harmonic changes and structural cadences that guided us from the motivic exposition to jaw-dropping epilogue. Placed after this, Hindemith’s movement, marked Äußerst labjaft, felt like a subconscious reimagination of the same music, rendering Hindemith’s trademark tonal language palpable and intelligible to us. The result with the Allemande and Lied was similar. Rothfritz tactfully threw off Bach’s highly ornamented music without becoming mired in 32nd notes. Her elegant graces felt as though they organically grew out of Bach’s convoluted notation. Hindemith’s Lied came off as equally gracious, with his notey runs sounding like decorous portamenti and glissandi over an imagined text.

The rest of the suite was no less thrilling. Rothfritz brought the same approach to interpreting little notes from the Allemande to the Courante, creating a fabric of cross rhythms and symphonic structures that animated the dance music. The emotional Sarabande was delivered not as a gentle song but as a desperate monologue as she railed against a group of audience members who held conversation and loudly departed in the course of the piece. The doors closed behind them as she repeated the B section, and a noticeably placid passion fell on the rest of us through Bach’s broad-swept, brushing eighth-note gestures. In the Gavottes, she toyed with the length of detatched notes, playing some skipping and spiccato, other detaché and witty. This fun interplay of chords and arpeggios spirited the music with a vibrant singsongy quality other players lack. The second Gavotte’s second theme, the enrapturing hurdy-gurdy section, was not a disappointment as the transcendent music felt as though it could life us out of our chairs. Both Gavottes showcased Rothfritz’s superb bow technique and capacity to mimic the idiomatic use of Germanic consonants to articulate and shape music. The spacing and skipping delivery of notes proved a delicious retransition back to first Gavotte which, in a synergistically Hindemithian approach, launched the suite into the elated gigue. She made the most of Bach’s throwing-it-at-the-wall texturing, with topics of horn calls, hemiolas, call backs to motives from previous movements, and spiraling runs that made us want to jump to our feet and cheer. As soon as she released the final note, you could hear the audience gasp, as we held our breath yearning to clap; but such an action would break the clearly stated (and heretofore unbroken) house rule to hold all applause until the end of each performers set to allow for the maximum amount of Bach’s music to be played in one day. But final it began, first a small strickle of clapping from the house’s back right then, trickling forward, a flood of genuinely joyous applause for a brief moment of sincere adoration for what we had heard and witnessed.

I would be negligent if I didn’t mention the rest of her stunning program. After the Bach-Hindemith combo, she played Will Stackpole’s Grimalkin (2023), a composition inspired by her pairing of the two great German composers. The pointillist composition built on Bach’s totalizing use of the instrument with the incorporation of Hindemith’s quasi-tonal language. It lead neatly into Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti’s ko’u inoa (my name is) which, like the prelude that began the recital, demonstrated Rothfritz’s amazing capabilities at applying timbral changes from minute changes of bow stroke to create a fractal-like palette of colors, each subtly varied and infinitely unique. The arpeggiated piece wonderfully amalgamated free, reverberant tones with muted tonal patches that spelt out a constellation-melody. The piece ended with violist-turned-singer Rothfritz dulcetly humming notes over a web of broken chords that faded away, softer and softer, until it continued to exist only in our imaginations.

A musicology PhD student at Boston University, Christopher Hodges earned a M.M. in organ performance with Peter Sykes.

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