One small step for Bach…

I’ve been volunteering this week at the San Francisco AGO (American Guild of Organists) chapter’s POE (Pipe Organ Encounter for teens). We’ve had the privilege of hosting 32 students from around the nation–some already capable organists, others trying the instrument out for the first time. It’s been a delight to get to know these folk, and to hear and see their enthusiasm for a broad range of music, from classical to various contemporary idioms.

Our guest artist for the week was Felix Hell. The fact that he’s 19, with an impressive 11-year performing resume, a B.A. from Curtis–not to mention a wonderful role model for our students–paled beside his outstanding performance at last night’s concert. I’m not a fan of big, bombastic organ works that don’t seem to know when to stop, but he made the organ dance, giving big works the vitality of intimate chamber music. His performance of Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H was stunning; certainly the best I’ve ever heard. Although Liszt would never be on my top ten…list, this performance would be.

The composition I really enjoyed was actually by Bach (J.S., that is). His Prelude and Fugue in D Major (BWV 532) was also exceptionally well played by Mr. Hell, with a crisp articulation that made the music sparkle. The work begins with a simple reiteration of 16th-notes: d-e-f#-e.
A colleague remarked that Bach was just showing off. And he did (both J.S. and Felix) with fine style. The opening riff is answered by alternating chords. The work continues as Bach spins out a simple moving down and up by step. With little more than basic step-wise movement he crafts a wonderful musical edifice. If ever justification was needed for learning scales, this is it (OK–there’s another Bach work built on an ascending D Major scale–in the pedal–but allow me a little licence!).

It’s fair to say that much of my own composing has focused on using small motivic ideas to build larger structures, but Bach does so well with what looks at first to be pretty unprepossessing material. I know–you might be thinking that it’s not just the material, but the procedures that are applied to the material. And so it is. Music is as much the spaces between the notes, the material the composer leaves out, as it is the stuff we hear (John Cage may have gone a bit far with his 4′ 33″ of space between the notes, but he was right on about music being much more than just notes on a page).

I don’t know how I’m going to get the Bach out of my head. I’m off to practice Ellacombe (see my previous post), which I’m playing tomorrow. Maybe that’ll help. On the other hand, maybe it’s time to get out my score of the Bach and renew my acquaintance with the piece up close and personal… Mr. Hell has set the bar rather high; thanks for a lesson that was both musical and inspiring.

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