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Some thoughts about the Junior Bach Festival

The page in which Bach writes out the proper execution of ornaments for his son Friedemann
The page in which Bach writes out the proper execution of ornaments for his son Friedemann
from Wikipedia (public domain)

Yesterday afternoon, in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church, the 61st Annual Junior Bach Festival concluded with the last in a series of nine recitals given over the course of two weekends at venues in Berkeley, Menlo Park, and Kensington, as well as San Francisco. Participants ranged in age from five to seventeen, performing solo works, concertos, and chamber music, all under the directorship of Lisa Grodin. Grodin is well-known in the Bay Area as a violinist and violist committed to historically-informed performances of early music; but all of yesterday afternoon’s performances were given on modern instruments.

At what age should a child be introduced to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach? Perhaps the best source of data with which to address this question would be that of Bach’s own education of his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann. For this we are fortunate to have a document, the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, a collection of keyboard music with entries written by both father and son. The compilation of this notebook began in 1720, when Friedemann would have been about ten years old. As a more contemporary point of reference, during her Salon recital for San Francisco Performances this past Wednesday (March 26), cellist Tanya Tomkins said that she first started playing movements from the cello suites at the age of eight.

Still, it is important to note that Tomkins used that word “movements.” Her earliest introduction to Bach was through samples, rather than entire works; and, similarly, most of the entries in Friedemann’s notebook were relatively short selections. Yesterday’s program presented both selections and entire works, one of which happened to be a solo cello suite (BWV 1009 in C major), played by a fifteen-year-old in its entirety (but without repeats). Furthermore, this was no mere account of all the notes. Rather it was a reading with meticulous attention to dynamics and phrasing that presented a stunningly expressive interpretation of the music.

It was also executed with intense concentration by an expressionless but highly focused performer. Indeed, there is a good chance that the student acquired knowledge of all of those performance details simply by mimicking the performance of his teacher. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, when Bernard Greenhouse studied the BWV 1008 cello suite in D minor with Pablo Casals, the teacher had the student invest several weeks in being able to produce “an absolute copy” of the master’s interpretation. The punch line to Greenhouse’s story, however, was that the achievement of that “absolute copy” was only the first step of his learning experience, after which he was then prepared to find his own voice in turning those notes into music. From that point of view, one could take that student performance of BWV 1009 as a highly satisfying progress report.

Less satisfying, however, were most of the performances that involved more than one player. For the most part, these were students who were still so focused on getting their own parts right that they had not begun to listen to the other performers and think about the overall impression. This was most evident in performances by students from The Crowden School, who were easily identified because they all wore black sweatshirts sporting the school’s logo printed in white. While they were all in their early teens, they had not yet grasped the intonation techniques necessary to achieve the intervals of satisfying harmonies. On the other hand, a quartet of students from San Jose aged fifteen and sixteen gave an admirably convincing account of the BWV 1038 trio sonata for flute, piano, and cello. The presence of a piano continuo may have helped to establish a point of reference, but what was most important was they way in which one could appreciate how each student was listening to all of the other three.