On Bach’s birthday: the gift of Suites for Solo Cello

Not quite sure how to celebrate Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday this year? It’s coming up this weekend you know. And if somehow you’ve neglected to plan for the birth anniversary of this genius of Western Music, I understand the sense of guilt you carry. But really, there’s no need for panic or embarrassment. Here’s the solution.

For more than 20 years the cello playing community in Seattle and across Washington State has hosted a Bach birthday bash like no other. The party is open to all. It’s a casual affair that doesn’t cost any money. You can drop in at any time and leave when you need to. And instead of bringing the gifts, you receive them.

One of the treasures that J.S. Bach (1685-1750) left behind was the set of Suites for Solo Cello composed around the year 1720. There are six Bach Solo Cello Suites in all. Each has six movements. Since 1988 gifted amateur, student and professional cellists in our region have gathered around the time of Bach’s Birthday to play through all 36 movements. This year the “Bach Suite Marathon” is at Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church in Seattle this Saturday March 20, 2010. The free event, presented annually by the Seattle Violoncello Society, starts at 10AM and ends at about 2:30PM. The cellists and audience take a break after the first three suites are performed; the three remaining suites are played after lunch.

Though it’s referred to as a Bach “marathon,” it’s really more of a “tag team relay.” Each participating cellist takes the stage for a movement of the Suite. After their solo performance of a prelude, allemande, courante, bouree, sarabande, minuet, gavotte or gigue, the cellist relinquishes his or her chair to the next player. The musicians come from the Seattle Symphony, Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra, Auburn Symphony Orchestra, and Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras. Some study with top cello teachers in the region, some are professors at music departments across the state, and in some cases they are doctors, teachers and radio announcers who’ve kept up their cello skills over the years. Performers dress casually and the audience is encouraged to “come as you are”. The one bit of required concert decorum though, is that you listen quietly, carefully and respectfully as the music is performed. And it’s much nicer if hold your applause until each of the six movements are played in their entirety. At that point all 6 players assigned to the suite (occasionally there are fewer than 6 players as some perform more than one movement) take a collective bow, raising their cellos in lieu of Gold, Silver or Bronze medals.

Playing the Bach Suites for Solo Cello is indeed an athletic undertaking in many ways. The music is physically, intellectually and musically demanding. The Solo Cello Suite Number Six for instance is written for what some historians call a “Viola Pomposa,” a five-string instrument, few of which exist today. Today’s cellists play the Suite Number Six on a modern four-string cello, which lacks the high “E” string of its predecessor. This makes for difficult fingerings in the high cello register and chords that are awkward to play. Equally challenging is the interpretation of Bach’s counterpoint on an instrument like the cello which generally plays a single melodic line. Cellists don’t have the 10 fingers and multiple melodic lines available to a pianist or harpsichordist. So for decades cellists have debated which phrasing, bowing, fingering or interpretive nuance best achieves the musical effects that Bach had in mind. The Seattle Bach Solo Suite Marathon, showcasing a great diversity of Bach Suite interpretations, is a great example of the fruits of that ongoing debate, study and performance.

Cordelia Wikarski Miedel is the Seattle cellist and University of Puget Sound faculty member who organized the Bach Suite Marathon in 1988. She spends hours on the phone every year recruiting the region’s best cellists for the event. Being a “semi-professional” cellist myself, Cordelia is the teacher and coach that I seek out when I brush up my Bach Suites in preparation for the annual event. It’s always a pleasure to revisit this music. Cordelia created the Bach Marathon because cellists study solo Bach primarily as young students of the instrument, and then during their university and conservatory years. Often the competing demands of amateur or professional musical life often leave us little time to explore this great music beyond teaching and academic settings. But playing and hearing solo Bach on the cello should be a lifelong pursuit both for listeners and performers. So it’s a rare opportunity we have in Seattle to participate in this unique celebration of Bach’s life and work.

Rest assured now that your Bach Birthday plans covered. I’m looking forward to seeing you and my cellist colleagues from across the state this coming Saturday, March 20 at 10AM. Until then, I’m off to practice the “Allemande” from the G Major Suite Number 1.

Dave Beck is a host and producer at KUOW Public Radio in Seattle. He plays cello in the Auburn Symphony Orchestra, sits on the Simple Measures Board of Directors and is this season’s pre-concert speaker for the Cascade Symphony Orchestra.

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6 thoughts on “On Bach’s birthday: the gift of Suites for Solo Cello

  1. This is such a great event, and offering FREE Bach to the public is a wonderful service that these great musicians provide each year. I hope there’s a grand turnout! I will be playing (cello) elsewhere that day but will be there in spirit. Happy Bday Bach!

  2. Dave.
    Sounds like a GRAND event, Smoke those AXE Strings during your performance” ! Bro ! Reminds me of the Madison Junior High Music Marathons we used to have.
    Oh yes and before I forget…….

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY (BILS-DAY) , JOHANN B. !

  3. This is a wonderful idea that I hope spreads across the US and elsewhere. To make it all the merrier, the cellos could perform one day and the violinsts perform Bach’s six unaccompanied violin pieces on another.

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