What made this week of Bach so great?
It’s not merely the music – though it’s hard to get much better than Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. This work is nearly three hundred years old but utterly timeless. It feels ancient and contemporary at once. There are odd movements that make my brain hurt, rhythmically and harmonically, and others that are as simple and joyful as can be. I am not a church-goer, but I can respect a good story, told transcendentally well, by one who believed it deeply. It makes me want to believe, and I cannot praise a piece more highly.
It’s not merely the people, although the group is terrific. Many of the players at the Peoria Bach Festival are normal. Human. People I would play with at any other gig and not notice, particularly. Friendly, cheerful colleagues but not friends. Somehow in these concerts we came together in pursuit of a common goal, and there was something tremendously special there.
A piece like this requires so much concentration. We have to change gears so fast, from one aria to the next, and from chorus to accompanied recitative to chorale. There are so many notes, and so many movements, and so many different rhythmic styles and articulations and ornaments. I have pencil all over my part, but just writing it down doesn’t mean I’ll do it correctly. I pay attention, hard and constantly. Disaster – very audible disaster – is never more than one finger fumble or mental slip away. And everyone around me is spot-on, paying attention, and ready. In this tiny chamber orchestra, I sit right next to the first violins, and often double them. It is terrifying to try to match articulation and ornamentation perfectly with two other people who never seem to make mistakes, especially when the music is as technical and varied as this material is.
And I think that that might be what is so wonderful. I never have time in this music to get obsessed about my playing, or my sound, or the precise phrase I am trying to make. There is no time to overthink anything. I just keep turning pages, and just keep playing. Matching everything around me, playing in tune, keeping the dance in motion. Everyone around me on the same mission, including the audience.
Did I mention the audience? 200 strong, filling the church for both nights. Mostly older people, yes, but enough teenagers to give me hope for the future. You can feel when the room is engaged, and these people were concentrating right along with us the whole way through. Midway through the final cantata I still heard the rustle of 200 pages turning as the audience continued to track the translations in the program.
Having to – being permitted to – focus that much and that long and that well is a rarity in this day and age. It is a significant exercise for my brain to stay on task this well, and I feel so much the better for it.
So. Great music. Great conductor. Great colleagues. An appreciative audience hanging on every note. Deep concentration. Spectacularly written and plentiful oboe solos and duets. And two days of church cookies. I’m happy to be home, and to be with Steve and Zoe for a couple of days before my next big event, but this week was marvelous, and most welcome.