Johann Sebastian Bach is known for his innovative, beautiful and technically challenging pieces for orchestral ensembles and keyboards. He also played the violin and wrote all kinds of solo works, including six unaccompanied cello suites that are still considered Mount Everest for that instrument. In addition, his cantatas for chorus, soloists and orchestra are considered among the highest achievements for oratorios to date.
In the coming weeks, concertgoers can hear all of Bach’s Cello Suites performed by Alyssa Weilerstein in Chamber Music Northwest (Feb. 4) and the first four suites by cellists from the Portland Baroque Orchestra (Feb. 19). Between the cello concerts is Sunday’s aptly named Super Bach Show (Feb. 12) with a Bach Cantata Choir, which choir fans can enjoy before the Super Bowl game.
Since making his professional debut in 1995 at age 13 with the Cleveland Orchestra and his Carnegie Hall debut two years later, Weilerstein has toured internationally, made numerous recordings, and received a MacArthur “genius” grant.
“Bach’s cello suites are considered by cellists to be the cello bible,” Weilerstein said in a Zoom conversation. “Modern cello playing began there. Although Bach did not play the cello, he transcended the instrument with this music.”
Weilerstein will perform all six cello suites in one concert. This usually takes more than two and a half hours – not counting the intermission. Weilerstein performed the entire marathon in concert for the first time in 2016 and recorded them in 2020 on the Pentatone label.
“I think of full suites as a journey through life,” Weilerstein said. “The first apartment is childhood. It’s very clean, innocent and optimistic. The second is adolescence – full of anxiety and darkness – a kind of tormented character and also very fickle. The third suite evokes one’s flowering. It is very regal and confident. It has the optimism of a young adult ready to take on the world. The fourth suite is middle aged – more whimsical and complex. Here things take a turn and become more interesting and complex. The fifth suite is tragic, desolate, desolate, lonely, isolated. The sixth suite is the longest – almost twice as long as the first – it expresses experience, learned wisdom.”
Weilerstein noted her subjective view of the apartments.
“It’s almost like they can’t be played, but they have to be played,” she said. “You can play them two months later and they will be different. This is good. There is no single interpretation of the apartments.
Tanya Tomkins of the Portland Baroque Orchestra feels the same way about Bach’s cello suites, which she and three colleagues will perform on cellos from the Baroque period.
“The pieces are a real journey,” Tomkins said. “You never play them the same way twice. I performed them all in several places, including the Library of Congress, and recorded them for Avie Records. But I always want to start over and play them in a different way.”
For the PBO concert, Tomkins has shared the first four suites with Adaiha MacAdam-Somer, Annabeth Shirley and Joanna Blendulf.
“I like the idea of different people playing the suites because everyone has a different take on it,” Tomkins said. “It’s hard for me to pick a favorite. It is an honor to play any of these works. I love the first one because it’s so upbeat, welcoming and joyful – a bright way to start the journey.”
Tomkins loves the natural, innate feel of the flats.
“Bach’s cello pieces make the most of the instrument,” she noted. “He really got it with the keys and the open strings and how we make the instrument resonate.”
Bach was influenced by other composers, Tomkins said.
“The Italians took the violin and cello into a more soloistic form,” she said. “Bach was always looking around at what others were doing. But he will write a chacon for the first time that will blow everyone else away. He did the same with French music. He decided he could contribute and here is his little contribution. It was mind blowing! It was crazy what he could do!”
Bach fans can start the day of the big game with a sonic blast at Bach’s Super Bach Cantata Choir Sunday concert.
“We’ve been doing Super Bach Sunday since we started,” said Ralph Nelson, the choir’s artistic director, “and now we’re in our 17th season. This is our most popular concert every year. We sing very joyful and fun pieces, which is the opposite of what some people think of Bach’s music. We bring out the trumpets and the timpani and make it a big celebration.”
The 50-voice choir will be joined by soloists and a chamber orchestra to perform Bach’s Cantata No. 43, God Ascended with a Shout and other works from the Baroque era.
“The concert will feature four composers who worked at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, but not at the same time,” Nelson added. “Bach was director of music there from 1723 to 1750. He wrote many of his greatest choral pieces there. But he was only one in a long line of talented German musicians.
The program includes “Now we thank all for our God” by Johann Hermann Schein, “Make the door wide” by Johann Scheele and “Your heavens rejoice above” by Johann Kunau. All three preceded Bach in the church of St. Thomas.
“Johann Kunau knew Bach and they were pretty good friends,” Nelson said. “When Kunau died, the leaders in Leipzig heard candidates for his replacement and Bach came in third place behind Georg Philipp Telemann and Christoph Graupner. But Telemann gets a better paying gig and Graupner can’t back out of his contract. So the Leipzig city council wrote that it had to “reluctantly” hire its third choice, J.S. Bach! The running joke these days is that Telemann and Graupner weren’t hired because their first names weren’t Johan.
Alisa Weilerstein: The Complete Bach Cello Suites – 6 p.m. Saturday, February 4, First Baptist Church, 909 SW 11th Ave.; $45-$75 (additional discounts for under 30s and under 18s), cmnw.org.
Bach Cantata Choir: Super Bach Sunday – 2:00 pm Sunday, February 12, Rose City Park Presbyterian Church 1907 NE 45th Ave.; free, bachcantatachoir.org.
Portland Baroque Orchestra: Bach Cello Suites – 3:00 p.m., Sunday, February 19, Kaul Auditorium, Reed College; $35-$66, pbo.org.
— James Bash