6:15 p.m. on Friday. Swathed in black velvet and hunched over a small plastic tub of macaroni and cheese, it occurred to me that much of my life revolves around the very High and the very Low, sometimes both at the same time.
It was Friday night, at the end of a crazy-busy day at work. I showered, dressed, and headed back out to the Rochester Early Music Festival.
Until that moment, the whole day had felt stuck on fast forward. Then someone hit the pause button.
I think it was J.S. Bach.
The Rochester Early Music Festival showcases performances from several groups. The evening was book-ended by a Bach Cantata (#131) and the Concerto for Two Harpsichords, Strings, and Basso continuo (BWV 1062) vigorously performed by soloists Bonnie Choi and Jamie Bobb. In between, we heard from Musica Spei, the Cathedral Choir School, and Air de Cour.
The Rochester Bach Festival Chorus began the evening with J.S. Bach’s Cantana #131, “Out of the depths I call, Lord, to You.”
If that sounds mournful to you, you’re right.
Bach wrote this cantata around 1707. It was intended to be penitential, and there’s a theory that it has a connection to a disastrous fire. Like pieces written after 9/11, this was music in time of need. On Friday night, we heard heart-melting solos from bass Brent Arnold and tenor Pablo Bustos. They swooped in like falcons over a grassy field. The chorus rumbled, strings quivered like cattails, and sharp-winged birds soared overhead.
Flutist Sophia Gibbs Kim of Air de Cour sent up arcs of light in her interpretation of the Hamburg Sonata in G by C.P.E. Bach. Her deft and lyrical playing floated through St. Anne’s, one of the city’s brightest, most resonant spaces.
For me, the surprise of the evening came from Dean Ekberg and his Cathedral Choir School. Some of the singers couldn’t have been more than eight or nine. They offered English anthems (mostly) written during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The line “O remember not the sins and offences of my youth” struck me as particularly haunting coming from such small mouths.
That was Friday night.
Now I’ll fast forward 24 hours to Saturday night.
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra performed two contemporary pieces. One was the Rochester premiere of Deus ex Machina, a work co-commissioned by the RPO.
I’d made the mistake of reading Stuart Low’s Saturday morning review in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle --
The concert opened with “Old and Lost Rivers” by Tobias Picker. It starts with an ominous low note and fills up quickly with moody chords that meander along like, well, an old and lost river. One discordant note showed up at the end of the piece, and I think I heard a few echoes of David Diamond’s The Enormous Room.
In general, listening to Old and Lost Rivers reminded me of driving that stretch of 490 Westbound between Chili and Leroy. It’s flat and monotonous. Some might call it dreamy. My home country.
By contrast, Michael Daugherty’s Deus Ex Machina (“God from the Machine”) was all fire, tension, and momentum and I loved it.
Based on a train metaphor, it opened with the pianist leaning over and strumming the strings inside the case. Then the concerto was off like a steam locomotive, puffing out chromatic scales and percussive effects. The string players slapped their instruments. The percussionists jingled and pounded. There was a flash of Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Debussy, and then we plowed into Gershwin.
Some reviewers used the word “derivative” to deride a composer’s efforts, but I think that’s misguided. Mozart didn’t live in a bubble. Neither did Brahms. If composer Michael Daugherty finds inspiration in 20th century Russia or on Tin Pan Alley, that’s fine. The big question is did he accomplish what he’d aimed for?
For more on this question, read Bernard Holland’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times.
I totally agree. Surprise me.