Last night at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Voices of Music presented the winners of the 2012 Bach Competition at their annual Evening with the Stars concert. This year the winners were four instrumentalists, meaning that the entire program was devoted to showcasing their talents with four selections of Johann Sebastian Bach’s chamber music. Only one of the winners performed with accompaniment: Violinist Natalie Carducci performed the BWV 1023 E minor sonata with a continuo consisting of Voices of Music regulars William Skeen on baroque cello, David Tayler on archlute, and Hanneke van Proosdij on harpsichord. The remaining winners performed unaccompanied, Jan Van Hoecke giving a recorder performance of the BWV 1013 solo flute partita in A minor and Michael Kaufman and Adaiha Macadam-Somer performing solo cello suites, BWV 1011 in C minor and BWV 1007 in G major, respectively.
Listening to these young talents, I was reminded of a Baroque Master Class that flutist Sandra Miller had given at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in March of 2010. Miller was the first teacher to impress upon me that one cannot, with several very good reasons, approach a “period” instrument as one would approach a modern one. Those reasons have much to do with how technology has influenced the history of instrument development, almost in the manner of a “manifest destiny” advancing towards the two goals of improved reliability and uniformity.
Reliability is basically a matter of control. With modern instruments one learns techniques that have not changed very much over the last few generations. Those techniques are directed at how you get the sounds you want from the instrument you are playing; and, allowing for a certain amount of “breaking in” time, they do not change very much when you move from one violin or flute to another. This kind of reliable consistency arises from a convergence of uniform standards for and approaches to instrument making.
None of this was common practice in the eighteenth century. Every instrument was unique, and it could even be the case that every note produced by an instrument had its own characteristic sonority. The performer thus could not focus on getting the sounds (s)he wanted but had to settle, instead, for working with the sounds that the instrument would afford. As I like to put it, performance was a matter of reconciling getting what you want with wanting what you get.
In this respect it was both fascinating and encouraging to watch these four young talents engage with their instruments. Each of them seemed to appreciate this need for a give-and-take relationship in his/her own way. One might say that last night those of us in the audience were not so much listening to the music of Bach as we were experiencing the complex of relationships that would emerge when a performer approaches a Bach score with an instrument from his period. This may have been a jolt for those expecting consistency in their listening experiences, but who was ever so coldly objective as to insist that consistency was of priority importance in making music?
Put another way, a Bach score is not an “engineering blueprint” from which one “builds” a performance “according to specifications.” It is only a trace that Bach left for others (like his sons), who aspired also to make music. Today we have not only those traces but also informed reproductions of the instruments through which that music was made. Last night’s competition winners displayed strong working knowledge of not only the traces and the instruments but also the mindset behind those performance practices that Bach cultivated and executed. We have every reason to wish to hear more of these new “voices of music.”