From Bach to Berstein and Beyond program notes

Thursday, July 30, 2020 , 6:30 PM

Susato: Four Renaissance Dances

Bach: Suite No. 6 in D Major for Cello, BWV 1012

Salonen: From Lachen Verlernt [Laughing Unlearnt] for Violin

Bernstein/Gale: Suite from West Side Story for Brass Quintet

Some pieces from this concert will be introduced during the performance rather than with program notes.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Suite No. 6 in D Major for Cello, BWV 1012 (1717-23)

During his years at Prince Leopold’s court at Köthen (1717-1723), Bach was able to concentrate on composing secular music, (The Prince was a Calvinist and used little music at his chapel.) The Brandenburg Concertos and the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier were written during this time, as were his six Cello Suites. These remarkable pieces—which manage to create an entire musical universe through a single, (usually) monophonic instrument—were largely neglected for 200 years, dismissed as curiosities or technical studies, until Pablo Casals introduced them to the wider public in the early part of the 20th century. They subsequently became staples of the cello repertoire and are widely regarded as masterpieces of the literature.

The sixth and final suite is a stunning achievement. The original autograph manuscripts for all six suites are lost, but an early copy of the sixth in Anna Magdalena Bach’s notebook indicates that the piece is to be played à cinq cordes, with an “extra” fifth string tuned to the E above the traditionally highest A string. Indeed, the cello ranges significantly higher in this suite than the others: the high G heard in the Prelude is an octave above the highest note in any of the previous suites. Nevertheless, the piece in modern performance is generally adapted to the traditional four-string cello, necessitating some tricky thumb-position shifts.

The music of the opening movement, Prelude, is 104 measures of pure light and brightness. Cast in 12/8 time, the surface rhythms are in consistent eighth notes without break or deviation until 78 measures in, when Bach begins to introduce some quicker rhythms into the mix. Listen for the repeated D’s in the opening two measures: all but 6 of the first 24 notes are D’s below middle C, but by shifting strings on these notes, Bach builds both timbral interest and a strong sense of meter. This type of note repetition becomes motivic in the movement and helps Bach establish a radiant harmonic backdrop in a movement with almost no double stops. The high G is reached in measure 73—a kind of climax—and the extensively elongated descent from that peak, which includes the rhythmic variations, is a dramatic masterstroke.

The fourth movement, Sarabande, conveys an enormous emotional impression in its brief 32 measures. Unlike the Prelude, the Sarabande abounds with double, triple, and even quadruple stops throughout, creating a rich, harmonic palette. The slow triple dance seems to convey equal parts yearning and nostalgia.

The suite ends with an elaborate, virtuosic gigue. Bach turns the movement into a raucous folk dance, complete with pungent dissonances and percussive, insistent note repetitions.


Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Suite from West Side Story (1957)
Arranged by Jack Gale

When Bernstein originally conceived his iconic update of Romeo and Juliet with choreographer Jerome Robbins, they mapped out the drama of East Side Story about a Jewish girl and an Irish Catholic boy. Six years later, they decided to update the plan for the musical, moving the action cross-town and changing the principal characters’ backgrounds to Puerto Rican and Polish. The change in focus provided rich, creative inspiration for Bernstein, who wrote, “Suddenly it all springs to life. I hear rhythms and pulses, and—most of all—I can sort of feel the form.” Even the unknown lyricist, named Stephen Sondheim, who joined the project seemed to be working out well. Shakespeare’s framework was maintained: the doomed lovers, Tony and Maria, belong to rival gangs—the Jets and the Sharks—and accidental deaths, misinformation, and basic distrust lead to tragedy. The memorable melodies, stunning choreography, and moving portrayal of the story made West Side Story an instant triumph. Within five years of its Broadway opening it had toured the country and was adapted into the popular 1961 movie. A new adaptation of the show into film by Steven Spielberg is due for release later this year.

Sid Ramin, along with Irwin Kostal, aided Bernstein in orchestrating both the original score and the later orchestral arrangements. The Prologue appears in most orchestral arrangements, including Jack’s Gale’s brass arrangement, which we hear this evening. Ramin wrote of the genesis of the precursor to the Prologue:

Lenny knew it should certainly begin with the famous signature tritone on which so much of the show’s music is based, and go directly to the Prologue (including finger snaps in the orchestra!).

The interval of the tritone is symbolic in the music, representing both the tension and violence between the two gangs, as well as the yearning that Tony has in the famous melody of “Maria.” Gale retains both the tritone figure and the musicians’ finger snaps here.

From “Prologue,” Gale’s arrangement moves through the most memorable numbers of the musical in chronological order. Brimming with enthusiasm, “Something’s Coming” expresses Tony’s premonition of significant happenings. (This is the one number Sondheim had a hand in composing.) Tony’s famous balcony declaration in “Maria” is followed by the two lovers’ soaring duet in “Tonight”. Maria’s Shark friends have the ultimate song showdown in “America”, arguing the merits of Puerto Rico (mostly trombone and horn) and Manhattan (mostly trumpets). “One Hand, One Heart” is another love duet, expressed soulfully in the mellow, lower register of the ensemble, and Maria’s “I Feel Pretty” provides lightness at a moment of growing tension between the gangs in the show. The dreamy “Somewhere” is Tony and Maria’s escapist reverie imagining a peaceful life together, a heartbreaking reprise which ends Bernstein’s Shakespearean adaptation.

—Program notes by Jon Kochavi