Ready. Steady. Bach!


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On 21 March 2015 the whole world unites in celebration of the remarkable date – the 330th anniversary of the birth of the renowned music genius Johann Sebastian Bach. Ukraine, with Lviv in particular, is making a significant contribution to this largest event in the history of classical music with a Bach Marathon called “Ready. Steady. Bach!

For twenty-four hours, works by this famous composer will be performed at the Lviv Philharmonic, the House of Organ and Chamber Music, the Potocki Palace, Lviv National Art Gallery and elsewhere, including coffee shops, restaurants and public transport. Along the tour route, more than six hundreds musicians from Ukraine and abroad, a new record for the country, will be featured.

All working together, the music of Bach will unite the world!

Lviv Philharmonic Orchestra

Bach in Modesto


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Tenth Street Plaza in Modesto

Tenth Street Plaza in Modesto

The Modesto Junior College Community Orchestra will celebrate the birthday of composer Johann Sebastian Bach with a “Bach in the Subways Day” on Saturday, 21 March 2015 at the Tenth Street Plaza in Modesto [CA].

Bach in the Subways is an international organization founded by cellist Dale Henderson to bring classical music into communities all over the world. Every year on 21 March, musicians from over forty countries celebrate Bach’s birthday by offering free performances in subways and public spaces. Countries participating include Ukraine, Italy, Taiwan, Philippines, Hungary, Mexico, Australia, Korea, the United States of America, Germany, and more.

This year, for the first time, the MJC Community Orchestra, directed by Anne Martin, will join the festivities. Since Modesto doesn’t have a subway system, the orchestra will perform a forty-five minute concert at Tenth Street Plaza (which is actually near a Subway Restaurant.)

The group will present several movements from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto nos. 2 and 3 (BWV 1047-8) and a Stokowski arrangement of the Fugue in G minor (BWV 578). Principal cellist Anthony Houth will also play a sarabande from Suite in C minor (BWV 1011).

Manteca Bulletin

Facing the Music with Nico Muhly


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Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly

The Guardian interviews composer Nico Muhly:

How do you listen to music?

In general, I listen at home on my big speakers. When in transit, iPhone with headphones. On the road, via satellite radio tuned almost entirely to 90’s on 9. Radio 3 until once they played Hindemith saxophone music and I had to take a month off.

What was the last piece of music you bought?

Via iTunes, Tallis: Ave, rosa sine spinis and Other Sacred Music, recorded by The Cardinall’s Musick and Andrew Carwood.

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?

No music should be associated with guilt; it is all pure pleasure. (Real answer: the Indigo Girls)

If you found yourself with six months free to learn a new instrument, what would you choose?

The oboe! Although one gathers it takes somewhat longer than half a year to get past the painful parts.

Is applauding between movements acceptable?

Sure, why not? Or maybe you should be tried at The Hague for it. I don’t know. The press have decided to invent some great crisis about applauding and I’m not entirely sure why. You know what’s scary? Going to the jazzzzzz clubbbbb. I have no idea what to do, when to applaud, how to grow my facial hair, when to stroke it etc. Go bother them about elitism and audience participation for a few years and let us get on with our work here, then let’s check in.

What single thing would improve the format of the classical concert?

I’ve always thought that in England particularly, it would be great to have a free program, particularly at the opera. It’s never struck me as being a £5 question to know who that lovely tenor was, or, indeed, to remind me of the basic plot of something fussy like La Forza del Destino. Even a simply printed thing would be, I think, useful; it doesn’t need to be glossy or have commissioned essays.

What’s been your most memorable live music experience as an audience member?

It hasn’t happened yet in the concert hall – for me, the sublime is attained on a random Tuesday, at a sparsely-attended evensong somewhere, with an Orlando Gibbons verse anthem being sung almost perfectly.

What was the first ever record you bought?

Lol, “record.” I think it would have been Different Trains, by Steve Reich, in 1992. It was a CD.

Do you enjoy musicals? Do you have a favorite?

I have a particular obsession with Sondheim. Into the Woods is a triumph in every way, and I live for Merrily We Roll Along.

How many recordings of the Goldberg Variations do you own? Do you have a favorite?

I own the world’s most fantastic collection of the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) played not on the keyboard. Violas da gamba, reeds, accordions, harp, you name it. One of the things about Bach is that once you start ignoring the performance practice crazy people, with their orthodoxies and internecine cattiness, you realize that Bach works despite a saxophone arrangement. That having been said, I put on Slow Late Gould when I am feeling self-indulgent and Fast Early Gould in moments of controlled mania. If Wendy Carlos got her act together and made a recording I would buy it in one second.

Which conductor of yesteryear do you most wish you could have worked with?

I think I would have to say Pierre Boulez, even though he is still, at the time of this writing, quick. I’m obsessed by his Stravinsky recordings: how he teases out the brittleness and brightness of the woodwinds. I have a recording of the Symphony in Three Movements with Chicago that gives me chills to this day.

Which non-classical musician would you love to work with?

James Blake. I keep on telling English papers to tell him to call me and nobody is making it happen. Also those boys from Disclosure. I’m leaving this in your hands now.

Imagine you’re a festival director here in London with unlimited resources. What would you program – or commission – for your opening event?

Obviously Tom Adès arrangements of Beyoncé’s entire catalogue – including Destiny’s Child-era best-of. Then you get a huge orchestra together, fly Bey over, and get a graphic designer to make a big deal about accents aigu and grave with perhaps a commissioned sculpture and boudoir photographs. I’m shocked nobody has done this already. Can you imagine his version of “Nasty put some clothes on [gong] I told you [bell + muted trumpet] don’t walk out the house without your clothes on [piccolo filigree]?“

What do you sing in the shower?

See above.

The Guardian

A Sequel to “High Fidelity”


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Illustration by Charlotte Farmer

Illustration by Charlotte Farmer

Here is how you started a music collection, if you were born sometime between 1940 and 1990: You bought an album, and for the time being, that album was all you had. You liked some tracks more than others at first, but as you only owned eight or ten or twelve of them (maybe a few more, if it was a recently released CD), you couldn’t afford to play favorites, so you listened to your one album over and over again until you liked all the songs equally. A couple of weeks later, you bought another album. After a year, you owned fifteen or twenty, and after five years, a couple of hundred.

Here is how you started a music collection in the early years of the twenty-first century: You gave an iPod to a friend or an elder sibling or an uncle, and you said, “Fill this up for me.” And suddenly you would have a couple of thousand tracks, most of which you wouldn’t ever listen to. If you’re a teenager now, you wouldn’t even bother going to all that trouble, because all the music ever recorded in the history of the world is in your pocket, on your phone. We know, because that’s the way the world always works, that teenagers in ten or twenty years time will be laughing and shaking their heads at the primitivism and inconvenience of Spotify – “You had to wait a few seconds to download?” “Not everywhere had the Internet?” “You had to touch a screen?” But at this point, it’s hard to imagine how music consumption of the future will be much easier or cheaper than it is now.

My first novel, High Fidelity, is about the lost but fiercely snobby people who used to sell us our music, back in the day when music was something you could touch and see and probably smell, as well as hear. (If I had been told, when I was writing it, that within a decade you’d be able to email a song, I’d have presumed that this meant you could also email a sandwich.) The book is now twenty years old, and the technological innovations of the last fifteen years should by rights have made it look like a story about blacksmiths, or milkmen, or some other profession that has been murdered in cold blood by the modern world.

I have, from time to time, considered writing a sequel to the book. Rob and his long-suffering girlfriend Laura seemed emblematic of a certain kind of contemporary relationship – Rob confused and drifting, Laura focused and several years further on into adulthood. Maybe it would be interesting to see how they were getting on as they approached middle age. Did they have kids? Were they still together? What was Rob up to now? The answers to the first two questions were up to me (I reckon yes and no), but I could never come up with an answer to the third, or at least, not one that interested me enough to spend a couple of years of my life exploring. The owner of the independent store where I used to hang out is now a real estate agent; his former partner part-owns the lingerie shop that now occupies the same site. And when I asked Facebook friends from all over the world where their record-store guys had disappeared to, it was hard to see a pattern in the information they provided: postman, vintner, pornography writer, psychotherapist, drummer, bookstore assistant, waiter, tropical fish breeder . . . All one can say for sure is that selling scratched copies of Replacements albums didn’t help anyone lay down a conventional career path.

And yet readers, some of them young enough never to have owned one lonely album, still seem to find the book, and a way of relating to it. This might in part be because some of the old ways have proved remarkably, bafflingly durable – there are even a few signs that ownership and physical manifestations of music are making a comeback. There is an independent record store four hundred yards from my desk; it has, in the last few months, opened a new branch, in Shoreditch, London’s equivalent of Brooklyn. Vinyl sales are increasing, and in the United Kingdom there are now more outlets for CDs and records than there have ever been. True, most of these are supermarkets, but not everyone, clearly, has decided that music is worthless. New vinyl is expensive, and yet Americans bought more than nine million LPs in 2014.

And a surprising number of the old places simply never closed. They have seen off Borders, Tower and Virgin, and they have the place to themselves. They’re not getting rich, but those clerks are still there, still sneering at your bad choices, offering you an understated but supportive raise of the eyebrow for your good ones.

One of the great benefits of digital consumption is that it is democratic: In cyberspace, there’s nobody to judge you. If this fifty-seven-year-old wants to hear what Joey Badass sounds like, I don’t have to run the gauntlet of incredulous stares in cool record stores: There! I’m listening to Paper Trails as we speak! And yet part of the point of culture is that it allows us to demonstrate our tastes publicly – it helps us find our tribe. (Thanks, Joey, but I’m going back to the new Valentinos compilation.) The arts are the most elaborate and most precise social network ever invented, but if it’s going to work properly, you have to get out of the house sometimes and show who you are and what you love. You have to go to shows and galleries and bookstores, you have to ask for what you want out loud. And this expression of taste must involve an impulse that, at its heart, is anti-democratic: Somewhere you have to believe that what you like is better than what all those other losers like.

So maybe we need those record-store guys; maybe the reason so many of them are still around is that, without them, the whole system grinds to a halt. If you own all the music ever recorded in the entire history of the world, then who are you? Those people queuing outside their local independent on Record Store Day [18 April 2015] want to be known.

Nick HornbyBillboard

Gil Shaham’s Multimedia Tour


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Gil Shaham performing "Six Solos for Violin"

Gil Shaham in Six Solos for Violin

Gil Shaham often tells his children to take risks, try new things and not be afraid of making mistakes. But the renowned violinist realized a few years ago that he had not done a very good job of following his own advice, so he decided to break out of his comfort zone and develop an innovative twenty-first-century way to present Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (BWV 1001-1006).

“I think of this as a little bit of maybe practicing what I preach,” he said.

Shaham teamed with New York video artist David Michalek, who has created a group of short films to be projected on a screen behind the violinist as he performs the six works. The resulting multimedia collaboration will make its debut during a national tour timed to coincide with the 10 March 2015 release of Shaham’s recording of the complete Bach set on his Canary Classics label. The tour began 1 March 2015 in Chicago as part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Center Presents series, continues in late March in California, and concludes 23 April 2015 with a performance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“I hope people come to see it with an open mind,” Shaham said. “Some of the images will surprise people. Some might shock people. But I found them to be mesmerizing and beautiful and very, very musical.”

Michalek has gained international attention for his multifaceted body of work, which includes large-scale outdoor installations, in which he projects super slow-motion films on giant screens. These projects have been shown in such high-visibility sites as Lincoln Center, Trafalgar Square, and Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin. Among the best-known such works is Slow Dancing, which consists of forty-three video portraits of dancers and choreographers from around the world. Each subject was filmed using a high-speed, high-definition camera that records one thousand frames per second compared to the standard thirty frames. Because the resulting videos last ten minutes but show only five seconds of action, the movement is barely perceptible.

The artist has continued his extreme slow-motion techniques for this project, finding thematic links to Bach’s works without trying to specifically interpret them. The challenge was to create images for music never intended for such purpose and to make sure the two mediums complemented each other. Michalek asked himself such questions as: “What does it mean to couple this kind of pure music with an image? What can an image do? What can it do advantageously? What can it do problematically?”

Some experts believe the three pairs of sonatas and partitas relate to the New Testament stories of Christ’s Nativity, Passion, and Resurrection. Rather than attempting to directly depict the first of those, for example, Michalek chose to suggest new life by filming a budding six-year-old violinist playing her instrument, zeroing in on her face and tiny fingers. “That’s all it is,” he said. “That’s the image. So, while we hear Gil onstage, playing the heights of violin music, we see a little being on screen holding the same instrument.” For another section, he created a kind of filmed still life, with a crystal ball, skull, and just the movement of sand slowing dropping through an hourglass.

Like Bach’s six Suites for Unaccompanied Violoncello (BWV 1007-12), the composer’s 1720 works for solo violin are considered among the most profound and expressive statements ever written for the instrument. Out of respect, Shaham postponed taking them on until about ten years ago, when he finally began performing them in public. “And then I learned what so many other musicians have said before – that there is really no greater joy than playing Bach,” he said. “When I go to my practice room, I’ll start practicing, and the time will just pass. Suddenly, it’s two hours later.”

As part of his activities while serving as the 2013-14 artist-in-residence with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich, he performed Bach’s solo violin works as part of three chamber-music programs. Because the ensemble is one of two orchestras that operate under the auspices of the Bayerischer Rundfunk, Shaham decided to take advantage of its easily accessible recording studios and engineers to record the set last summer. “It seemed like a good moment to do it,” he said.

The album will be the fourteenth release by Canary Classics, the label Shaham founded in 2003 as a way to have the freedom to record what he wanted without the commercial pressures associated with larger labels. It has since issued recordings featuring the violinist’s sister, pianist Orli Shaham, and his wife, violinist Adele Anthony. “It’s sort of a small family business,” the violinist said. The label was begun with a simple business plan: use the proceeds from the last recording used to pay for the next. “I feel very lucky that so far we’ve been able to do that.”

A big surprise for the violinist’s longtime fans is that he has brought a lighter-sounding, period-performance approach to his playing of the Bach solo Sonatas and Partitas. “I feel like now is probably the most rewarding time ever to be studying Bach, to be playing Bach, to be listening to Bach, because we have had so much research about it, and so, for example, I love the recordings of (Dutch conductor) Ton Koopman (and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra) of the Orchestral Suites (BWV 1066-8). So, I began experimenting. I guess it’s part of my mid-life crisis.”

To play these works, he reconfigures his 1699 Stradivarius with a baroque-style bridge made by New York luthier Adam Crane and gut instead of the usual steel strings, and he employs a Baroque-style bow commissioned from New York bow maker Markus Laine. At the same time, Shaham has incorporated such period-performance practices as less vibrato and faster tempos. “Some people have been surprised at my tempi, and I understand that. I certainly am playing much of this music faster than I used to, and I’m convinced for now that I’m happier with it.”

As he delved into Bach’s solo Sonatas and Partitas, Shaham said the spirit of experimentation in the music rubbed off on him and he began thinking about possible new ways to present this music. He realized today’s audiences do not understand many of the cultural references that would have come naturally for Bach’s contemporaries, such as what a bourrée is and how the music for it sounds.

So he wanted to provide new entry points into these works for twenty-first-century audiences. That’s when he thought of Michalek’s installation, Slow Dancing, which he saw in the Lincoln Center Plaza in 2007 and realized might be just the vehicle he was looking for. “I thought the way he shot his films was so beautiful, and especially the way he used time, the play with light and time, and I thought that could easily lend itself to music.”

The two first met at Café Luxembourg, near Lincoln Center, and quickly hit it off. It helped that Michalek was a fan of Bach and owned several recordings of the solo violin works. They later got together for further discussion at Michalek’s apartment, with the two of them sitting on the floor of the artist’s little library – Shaham breaking down the structure of the sonatas and partitas and playing examples on his violin, and Michalek showing excerpts from his other works. Soon their collaboration was firmly under way.

As an outgrowth of projects like Slow Dancing, Michalek does commissioned family portraits using a similar slow-motion technology. One day, he visited a client’s house, where one of his filmed diptychs of boys ages six and eight happened to be running at the same time that a recording of cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing a Bach solo suite was playing. To the artist, it appeared that the boys were having a response to the music he was hearing, and watching them and listening at the same time enhanced his appreciation of the music.

“It didn’t seem to damage to music,” he said. “It didn’t seem to fight with it. It was just a very simple mechanism that allowed me to get into a sort of state of active listening that I could sustain. Not that I can’t sustain it without the image. But it helped me do it differently, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe this is a way in.’”

Michalek set about creating short slow-motion videos to accompany each section of the six Bach works. The high-definition videos will be projected behind Shaham on screens that will vary in size depending on the venues where he performs. Michalek’s technical director will travel with the violinist and oversee the presentation of the visual imagery, which has to be manually queued to the duration of the violinist’s playing.

In all, the artist shot more than two hundred fifty takes, and he spent recent weeks deciding on which ones to include in the work. Shaham finally had a chance to see the final product earlier this week, and he called it stunning. “I feel very honored to be part of David’s vision in this project,” he said. “I think it’s a testament to Bach that the power of his music transcends centuries and cultures and mediums and inspires people.”

Kyle MacMillanClassical Voice North America

Frank Music Company to Close


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New York's Frank Music Company

New York’s Frank Music Company

Frank Music Company has supplied classical sheet music to generations of instrumentalists, singers and composers. On Friday, 6 March 2015, the retail store will close its doors for good, succumbing to dwindling sales.

Frank Music has been struggling for years, as music became readily available online, said Heidi Rogers, the shop’s owner. “We went from seeing fifteen to twenty people per day to seeing two or three,” Ms. Rogers said on Monday. “I went from feeling like I was at the center of the world to feeling invisible.” The store, on West 54th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, opened in 1937 and provided the city’s musicians scores from the standard – Bach, Beethoven – to the arcane. Ms. Rogers bought it in 1978.

Frank Music is the last store in the city dedicated to selling classical sheet music, Ms. Rogers said, although other places such as the Juilliard School’s bookstore at Lincoln Center have it on their shelves.

Frank Music’s stock, which Ms. Rogers counts as hundreds of thousands of scores, was purchased by an anonymous donor as a gift for the Colburn School, a music conservatory in Los Angeles. The school and Ms. Rogers declined to comment on financial details. Colburn School’s president and chief executive, Sel Kardan, called Frank Music’s scores “an invaluable resource for our students and faculty for years to come.”

To the sixty-three-year-old Ms. Rogers, nothing is more important than the arts. “The idea that classical music is irrelevant is ridiculous,” she said, bemoaning the comparative salaries of tubists and stockbrokers. “People should be paid in terms of what they contribute to people’s well being.” The store’s celebrity clients over the years have included pianists Emanuel Ax and Jeremy Denk, violinist Pamela Frank and cellist David Finckel. One of Ms. Rogers’s favorite memories is a telephone call from the violinist Itzhak Perlman, asking for Kreisler scores.

The composer Bruce Adolphe, who is resident lecturer at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, described the store as a musical meeting ground. “Frank’s Music was not just a store but a crucible,” he said, “a nexus where musicians from Suzuki beginners and their parents, to Joshua Bell, or the Brentano’s Mark Steinberg, would meet by chance.” Its closing is perhaps the latest example of classical music’s changing brick-and-mortar businesses.

Joseph Patelson Music House, another longtime sheet-music establishment, closed in 2009, and Dowling Music shut its doors in 2013. Last year, J&R Music and Computer World, the last store in New York with a sizable classical CD section, stopped carrying classical albums.

Musicians have plenty of online opportunities to buy sheet music, whether from, publishers or specialty websites such as Sheet Music Plus. The website IMSLP, a digital library of public-domain music, allows users to download scores for free. Some musicians with iPads have dispensed with pesky paper scores altogether.

For now, Ms. Rogers plans to pack up the rest of the store’s contents and then spend some time on her farm in the Catskills, where she has tenant farmers and fifty chickens. “Everyone says, ‘Aren’t you going to have a party?’ ” she said. “I feel like having a funeral.”

Corinne RameyThe Wall Street Journal

Outside the Bachx


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OutsidecropHip-hop is always hungry. Like the katamari of video game fame or the doubly insatiable hippos of the childhood tabletop game, hip-hop music and culture has absorbed (and remixed and made its own) every genre that it touches. From when it was born on the streets of New York City in the 1970s, hip-hop has taken in the bass lines of funk, the vocals of R&B, the epic scale of rock, the improvisation of jazz, and the dancey jams of pop. So why not classical music?

That’s the question that the world premiere commission Outside the Bachx, promoted as  a mix of classical music and hip-hop, is supposed to ask. But in reality Outside the Bachx is a hip-hop show, displaying admirable talents of breakdancing, beatboxing, DJing, song, and slam poetry which all just happen to occupy a space with a grand piano that gets played on occasion.

The story of the piece, as fleeting as its inexpertly pumped theatrical haze, tells of a rental rehearsal space shared in successive time slots by a classical pianist and a breakdancing group, who come into conflict over sharing that space, but eventually realize the fun of collaboration. The trouble is that while the piece finishes with the promised unification of the classical and hip-hop genres, the audience spends fifty minutes of the sixty minute runtime taking in scattered, though technically adept, vignettes oriented toward either hip-hop or classical music. It was like ordering a martini at a bar and only being served a glass of gin, a glass of vermouth, and an expectant look from the bartender.

But the moments that those separate elements get mixed are elevating. The finale of Outside the Bachx combines classical music and ballet beautifully with hip-hop, artfully and correctly adapting classical motifs into true combination. Another high point comes in the middle of the show, when classic Asian pentatonics and martial arts inspire hip-hop dance, though, as the two Asian actors participating in this number point out, they are Japanese and Filipino, while the music comes from China.

Outside the Bachx is admirable in its attempt to show the inclusivity of hip-hop with an ensemble of Latino, Asian, Black and White actors, but the approach to diversity is strained. The play often resorts to stereotyping to express that diversity: the Asian cast members mentioned above, Gene Shinozaki and John Vinuya, use martial arts in their dance, and the text of Gabriel Alvarez, a Dominican cast member, is all about macho bravado. I wish, especially in a show marketed for young audiences, that stereotyping could have been left by the wayside.

The show is part of the Kennedy Center’s Theater for Young Audiences. There’s no swearing, violence, or overt sexuality anywhere in the piece. By a different token though, the Outside the Bachx is held back by what seems to be an oversimplification of story and character development, both of which are shallow to the point of nonexistence. To be fair, the architecture of the Family Theater doesn’t do the staging, done by cast members Gabriel Dionisio and Ana Garcia, any favors. What may have worked in a more intimate configuration as an encompassing expression of hip-hop style feels dulled and unenergetic on a proscenium stage.

But the problem runs deeper than that. Outside the Bachx feels dumbed and watered down for the young audiences it targets. While it has the ingredients that people who don’t know young audiences expect to be winners (flashy lights, loud music, acrobatic dancing), it lacks what young people really crave: good storytelling. Just ask the kids seated all around me who began the squirming burble of boredom not fifteen minutes into the show. Give the kids some credit (I think they’re tougher critics than me), focus on telling one good story first and then worry about the flash later.

All of these criticisms have one theme: the execution of dance and poetry and song in this play were strong, but the fundamental text and storytelling lacked cohesiveness and punch. That’s an issue in the writing, also done by Dionisio and Garcia, who may have taken on too much as directors, writers, and choreographers of Outside the Bachx.

That’s atypical for a Kennedy Center commission for young audiences, which has previously produced gems like The Gift of Nothing and Orphie and the Book of Heroes.

Alan KatzDC Theatre Scene

Neve Shalom Synagogue


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The dome of Neve Shalom Synagogue

The dome of Neve Shalom Synagogue

The construction of Neve Shalom Synagogue, the central and largest Sephardic synagogue in the Galata neighborhood of Istanbul, today encompassed by the Beyoğlu district, was completed in 1951 by architects Elyo Ventura and Bernar Motola. At its opening, Chief Rabbi Rav Rafael Saban expressed his wish that it would be “not only a place to pray, but a place where the rich and poor, the young and old, the ignorant and the learned could gather and meet in a spirit of brotherhood and sincere equality.” In 1992 a prayer of thanks was offered to the Turkish nation on the five hundredth anniversary of their acceptance of the Jewish refugees who had been driven from their original homes into these new lands.

On 26 February 2015, as part of the the music series “Bach Before & After,” Sigiswald Kuijken will present a program featuring Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas (BWV 1001-6) at Neve Shalom Synagogue.

Gülşah DarkDaily Sabah

Is There Inherited “Genius” in the Bach Family Tree?


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Johann Sebastian, Carl Phillipp Emanuel, Johann Christian, Wilhelm Friedemann and Johann Christoph Bach

Johann Sebastian, Carl Phillipp Emanuel, Johann Christian, Wilhelm Friedemann and Johann Christoph Bach

Perhaps as captivating a question as how to define a “genius” in music is whether that genius can be passed down from one generation to the next.

Long before scientists mapped the genome, writers and classical critics pondered the musicians in the Bach family, which spanned seven generations and upwards of twenty eminent musicians, notably including Johann Sebastian, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian.

J. S. Bach biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel wrote in 1802, “If there has ever been a family in which a distinguished predisposition for one and the same art was, so to speak, inheritable, it was most certainly the Bach family.”

In the late 1800s, Italian physician Cesare Lombroso used the Bach family as a case study to further his belief that intellectual qualities such as genius could be passed from parent to child. And before genetics became a mature field of study, Lombroso was far from alone in his assessment of the Bachs – the most famous of which was by Francis Galton in 1863 titled Hereditary Genius. How else would one explain such a concentration of musical talent and accomplishment in one family?

Modern thinking on the topic boils down to the age-old question of nature versus nurture. Certainly the Bach genes might help one of J. S. Bach’s children display the same interest in music as their father, but so might just growing up in a household where music was the family business. Music education opportunities were limited in the Baroque and Classical eras, and all four of J. S. Bach’s children who went onto to be musicians were trained by their father at the St. Thomas School of Leipzig.

C.P.E Bach was also greatly influenced by his godfather and close friend of J. S. Bach, composer Georg Phillipp Telemann. C. P. E. Bach’s access to Telemann is again a question of having the opportunity to be nurtured. Much in the same way the son of a banker might get an internship at a bank because of his father’s connections, bearing the Bach family name undoubtedly afforded a member more opportunity and guidance in their career than any other aspiring composer born in Germany in the 1700s.

It’s also worth pointing out that while the Bach family is held up as a case study where musical talent was passed down, there are any number of descendants of recognized musical geniuses that didn’t exactly carry on the family name. Historians agree that Mozart’s son Franz Xaver Wolfgang only achieved moderate success as a performer and composer. The prospect of being compared to his father plagued Franz much of his life, and the epitaph on his grave read, “May the name of his father be his epitaph, as his veneration for him was the essence of his life.”

A 1993 study by K. Anders Ericsson suggested that there was nothing special in the Bach family tree. Ericsson argued that experts were made rather than born, and his theory was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers as the ten-thousand-hour rule (referring to the number of hours of practice required to make anyone an expert.) This suggestion marked a stark departure from nineteenth-century scientists like Galton who thought the Bach’s family success was evidence of an inherited genius.

However, most studies now suggest that it is neither all nature nor all nurture, but some level of both that determines success. In 2009, geneticist Irma Jär­velä in Helsinki gave musical aptitude tests to subjects with no musical training who were related to musicians. The study found that about half of the variation in test results could be explained by heritability or genetics.

A study in July by researchers from Princeton, Rice and Michigan State universities looked at the role of practice in musical ability. Brooke Macnamara, who worked on the study, said that practice certainly played a role in ability but there are other factors including traits that are likely to have been passed down from parent to child.

“Maybe it’s culturally based to some extent,” Macnamara said of why she thought the ten-thousand-hour rule became so popular. “I think it’s a very American kind of idea that, ‘just work hard enough and you can achieve anything.’ It’s very egalitarian, so people really like that idea.”

So was there some inherited “genius gene” passed through the Bach family? After a few centuries of back and forth, the modern consensus is that there probably were some helpful traits passed through seven Bach generations of musicians, but there were also more opportunities to be nurtured that came with bearing that family name.

Ricky O’BannonBaltimore Symphony Orchestra

Milhaud’s Création


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Darius Milhaud in 1926

Darius Milhaud in 1926

This weekend’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts (beginning on Thursday, 19 February 2015, conducted by Stéphane Denève) include the stylized jazz of Darius Milhaud‘s score for the 1923 ballet La création du monde. Commissioned by the Ballets Suédois, a short-lived rival to the more famous Ballets Russes, La création du monde joined a long line of artworks and spectacles in which European artists leveraged the perceived frisson of non-European cultures. Africa inspired La création du monde: writer Blaise Cendrars fashioned a scenario from African creation myths he collected for his Anthologie nègre; artist Fernand Léger based his set and costume designs on African sculpture. The goal was less authenticity than shock. (Milhaud recalled Léger rejecting designs because they were “too bright and ‘pretty-pretty.’”)

Milhaud brought jazz into the mix. He missed the first Parisian vogue for jazz (he was in Brazil, serving as secretary to the French ambassador, playwright Paul Claudel), but was smitten after hearing it in London; he later traveled to New York and visited jazz clubs in Harlem. Jazzy touches were already commonplace back in Paris, but Milhaud wanted something closer to the source. He favored the tumult of the improvisation he heard in Harlem over the tightly arranged stylings of the largely white bands that played in Europe; La création du monde is fully composed, but its Baroque-inspired prelude-and-fugue form was designed to capture jazz’s contrapuntal frenzy. Milhaud was determined to get the sound right, limiting the strings to single players – letting winds, piano, and percussion dominate – and prominently featuring the saxophone, its tone (as Milhaud described it) “squeezing the juice out of dreams.”

The score also preserves a fluid moment in the history of art. As the twentieth century progressed, modernism and popular culture became adversaries, but, at the time of La création du monde, modernists could engage with pop on terms that were equal parts celebration and sabotage. Milhaud’s music pushes against both sides: the orchestra sounds like a jazz band, the jazz band plays like Bach, Bach underpins a pagan ritual, the ritual fuels Parisian fashion. Every element tries to reshape every other by force of collision. (Not incidentally, La création du monde premiered on a double bill with Within the Quota, scored by Cole Porter.)

The revolution didn’t pan out – commercial forces commodified jazz, cosseted classical music into plush escapism, and ensured a long estrangement between pop and the avant-garde. But La création du monde still shouts an objection with atypical style.

Matthew GuerrieriThe Boston Globe