Hundreds of scholars have studied and written about the Bach Suites, yet we can only speculate about how or when they were first performed. The original manuscript is lost, leaving us with various facsimiles to decipher, and there are no written accounts by Bach’s contemporaries. The one advantage of this predicament is the wide spectrum of artistic decisions on which a cellist is compelled to ruminate, in order to make them “their own.”
Apparently the suites were not intended to be performed as a cycle, although this approach has become increasingly common in the last couple of decades. My current perspective, developed over many years of performing and teaching the suites, is that each of the six tells a distinctive story. And, like a series of books or films, each component is woven into a broader narrative. Presenting these works in chronological order highlights this overall structure as well as Bach’s astoundingly fluent compositional style. He begins, in the first suite, with youthful simplicity, and after choreographing an array of preludes and dances with heavenly sophistication, ends with the glorious, life-affirming sixth suite. It is as if the cycle is an etched outline of life itself, in one continuous brush stroke.
Embarking on this project to perform the Bach Suites cycle at The Broad Stage a year ago, allowed me to further explore the possibilities of presenting traditional classical music in a fresh light, while making every attempt to preserve its pure, aural integrity.
The performance’s visual component, a combination of projected photography, video, and lighting, stemmed from my experience producing the multimedia show Te Amo, Argentina. The projected backdrops became stimuli for reflection on an imagined narrative, and offered an inspired ornament to the setting, transporting the public to fantastical concert venues. Mark Swed of the LA Times eloquently described a similar concert experience: “to transform the space in which the music is performed through projections that alter one’s perception of space, place, and just maybe, sound.”
The virtual venues chosen by me and my production assistant Chloe Knudsen were: for the first Suite, an Antelope Valley cave, illuminating the stunning strata within, and the genesis of time; for the second, the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, in all its glory, allowing the audience to quietly and slowly survey some of its most celebrated frescoes; the third, the magnified lit-up interior of a cello, with light pouring in from the F holes—a glimpse into its soul; the fourth, a series of colorful and intricately decorated cupolas from Muslim temples (a tribute to tolerance of diversity in our country, right after the shooting in San Bernardino); the fifth, grand rooms of abandoned buildings, conveying the message of the futility of war, via the dark and dramatic qualities of this C minor Suite; and finally the sixth, celebrating the natural wonders of our earth, depicting fjords, salt deserts, the Giant’s Causeway, and in the final Gigue, a time-lapse explosion of the magical, dancing Northern Lights.
The most conspicuous feature of that afternoon’s performance, however, was my cello. The audience did not see the golden varnish of my three hundred year old Italian cello (a Carlo Tononi), but rather a gleaming, modern, Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello, made in Boston in 2014. This cello is light and quick to respond, which among other benefits, facilitates surprising physical freedom. That relative release of effort allows for remarkable surprises in tackling the Suites, from choices of fingerings, articulations of the bow, sound concepts, and a general psychological sense of liberty that encourages an improvisatory quality.
Performing the cycle on this cello taught me a great deal, and pushed me further to research the boundaries of interpretation, juxtaposing the contemporary and the ancient, and to strive to make a compelling case for interpreting Bach’s Suites on what preconceived notions would consider hardly a cello. It was risky, as for many it verged on the sacrilegious! No rotten tomatoes were thrown at me however, and by all appearances it was a success—the sold-out theater saw the audience on their feet after the closing bars, apparently not for a mad rush to the exit. I am now very curious about how such an instrument will change in time, and affect the evolution of performance practice in classical music!
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