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Bach and the dual semantics of ‘play’

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Every now and then, during Tanya Tomkins’ performances of two of the solo cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 1010 in E-flat major and BWV 1012 in D major) in her Salon recital for San Francisco Performances at the Hotel Rex yesterday evening, a streak of playfulness would emerge. This was particularly the case in BWV 1012, since the key of E-flat major is not particularly conducive to playing open strings on a cello. Nevertheless, one wishes there would have been more of those moments, particularly when considering the spirited approaches to many of the movements Bach composed for these two suites.

Such moments reinforce the proposition that, in the phrase “play music,” the verb “play” may denote “execution;” but it often carries a strong connotation of “diversion.” The act of playing music entails setting aside the mundanity of one’s situation in exchange for a more transcendent setting, and the attentive listener can not only detect that transcendence but also experience it. Thus, when the structure of the Gavotte movement in BWV 1012 discloses its nested ABCBA form, the listener can share with the performer not only the thrill of venturing into more thematic material than usual but also the humor of the deadpan simplicity with which the journey ends.

BWV 1012 is also a bit of a special case in that it requires a cello with a fifth string tuned E above the usual highest string tuned to A. During the opening Prelude, Bach has the cellist saw away within the instrument’s normal range. However, one soon becomes aware that the “center of gravity” of the pitch range is rising. Eventually, all of the “action” is concentrated on that E string, reveling in the joyousness of a child on a swing shouting “Look how high I can go!”

Tomkins commented to the audience that the years Bach spent at Köthen, when he composed these suites while Kapellmeister to Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, were a happy period in his life. Thus, even if these suites were composed for pedagogical purposes, whether for his own sons, Leopold’s musicians, or Leopold himself, joyousness clearly seems to have been “part of the equation.” Leopold may have been a stern Calvinist, but it is hard to imagine his holding back a smile or two during his encounters with these cello suites.

Tomkins herself tended to take a highly focused approach to her performances. At the end of the recital, she observed that she had begun playing movements from these suites at the age of eight and was still finding new approaches to them. Nothing could be truer to the spirit of Bach’s music. There is no “finality” in any performance of any of these suites. The performer who understands this music knows that it can always be taken in a new direction; and from Tomkins’ focus one could speculate that she was not afraid to seek out those new directions during the immediacy of performance, rather than in the sheltered isolation of rehearsal. On audience side one could observe responses to both the familiar and to the adventurousness of such new directions. Bach’s music may have been three centuries removed from its origins, but yesterday evening it was still very much in its element.

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