Festival Ouverture: Tout de Suites

Haimovitz keynotes EMV's 2017 BachBinge with commissioned works

Launching onto the ocean of Bach. Photo: Steph MacKinnon

Behind every bunraku doll – the incredibly lifelike, elaborately articulated, dwarf-sized wooden effigies of the classic Japanese puppet stage – there stands a ninja-clad, live human manipulator. Audiences pretend to ignore them so as to maintain the convention that the puppets have an independent life of their own.

Watching cellist Matt Haimovitz in the opening concert of Early Music Vancouver’s second annual Bach Festival, I couldn’t help thinking of these kagezukai. One could almost imagine his instrument singing of its own accord as Haimovitz, in matte black Zorro shirt and slacks, crouches self-effacingly in its shadow.

Pure illusion, of course. Watch the eloquent, infinitely versatile hands cradling, fingering and bowing the cello; keep your eye on the expressive face under the tossing, tonsured mane. There’s very much a human intelligence animating that assemblage of wood, varnish and glue.

And it’s an intelligence so esteemed in Art Music circles that Haimovitz has been able to persuade an eclectic half dozen of today’s most celebrated contemporary composers to create specially commissioned overtures for his idiosyncratic, virtuosic renditions of J.S. Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.

Four of these commissions, with their associated suites, were presented at Christ Church Cathedral as the kick-off concert for this year’s EMV BachFest. Overture composers ranged from Philip Glass, doyen of minimalist music (Suite number one), through Big Band exponent David Sanford (Suite V) to 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning avant gardiste Du Yun (Suite II) and Harvard prof-cum-jazzman Vijay Iyer (Suite III).Each of the commissions adopted a very different “take” on Bach, which Haimovitz then reflected in his subsequent rendering of the attendant suite – a feat of impressive versatility.

Glass – in his time an iconoclastic bohemian cohort of such mid-20th century luminaries as Jean Cocteau, Samuel Becket and Ravi Shankar – has now, in his 80’s, reverted to the classicism of his Paris conservatory training. It shows in his overture, a quietly reverential sampler of Bachian cadences and sonorities that serves as a kind of swara mandala for the melodic ecstasies to come.

Practically without missing a beat, Haimovitz swoons straight into the highwire-balancing intricacies of the first suite – eyes shut, indrawn, brisk but unrushed, concentrated but relaxed, supremely self-assured right through the last stroke of the final Gigue…

and then pauses to retune the bottom-most register of his cello, dropping the C-string all the way down to B-natural. He needs the more sombre tonality for Sanford’s brooding Es War overture (the title, according to the composer, is a wordplay upon the text of Bach’s Cantata #4, Es war ein wunderlichte Krieg, “it was a strange battle.”)

For Sanford, Suite V is the darkest of the six cello suites, a “response and deploration” to the violence of Bach’s time and our own. The overture leads with a pizzicato frenzy reminiscent of Sanford’s idol, Charlie Mingus, then veers into a harrying flurry of mosquito (or drone?) whines.

Haimovitz sustains this darkling palette throughout the ensuing suite, using the reinforced lower registers for added traction on the forceful dance rhythms. Even lyrically melodic sarabande – high point of the evening – cast a bass-inflected shadow of its own.

The tone hardly lightens after the intermission, but the mood shifts from protest to mourning in Du Yun’s overture. It serves to preface Suite II in D-minor, which Bach is believed to have composed in 1720, the year his first wife and young daughter died. Reflecting his grief, Du Yun interlaces wispy, atonal strands of sound to weave a taut veil of sorrow.

She titles her piece The Veronica, in allusion to the vera icona, the long-lost (and recently recovered?) “true icon” of Catholicism, a gossamer fragment of ancient shroud mysteriously imprinted with a visage believed to be that of the incarnate Christ. Du Yun, in her program notes, says she is less interested in the historicity of the legend than in the evolution of “bereavement…how it pauses, recharges, morphs and restarts.”

As Haimovitz recounts it, Du Yun herself undergoes all those phases in her composition process. Her musical imagination “teems with so many ideas that it’s hard to get it all noted down.” Yet between them, the cellist and the composer managed to wrestle The Veronica into a performable score. And, in the ensuing Suite, Haimovitz maintains the emotional pitch, recapitulating something like the classic Kubler-Ross “stages of grief.”

Yet, by the final stage, “acceptance,” the sorrow has been tamed and encoded into a vaulting Gigue which serves as a springboard for the final, virtuosic overture, Vijay Iyer’s Run. The piece is aptly named, a hectic scherzo gambol so technically challenging that, when he first saw it, Haimovitz had no idea how it might be played.

He grappled with it for three full days before arriving – with the composer’s blessing – at his own idiosyncratic set of  “articulations…slurring solutions…[and] distinctive dynamics” that give the piece an almost electronic effervescence.

The overture builds up a supercharged energy. It carries the C-major romp of Suite III right through to such a resounding resolution that the Christ Church audience was stunned to momentary silence before rising to ring the cathedral’s Douglas Fir rafters with a standing ovation. 

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