Dancing with Bach

Nov 4, 2019

Composer Eric Nathan steals a page from the playbook of J.S. Bach with two irresistible, newly re-imagined orchestral suites that straddle the centuries, and it's our CD of the Week.

Among the many devices and tools J.S. Bach used in creating his vast catalog of music are forms of dance that evolved in the royal courts of France, an environment about as far removed from the composer's own life as can be imagined. But through these courantes, bourrées, gavottes, and sarabandes (to name a few of these forms), he sensed a musical potential, making them his own and harnessing their rhythmic potential for everything from cantata movements to educational exercises.

One particular collection of works that drew that potential out most explicitly is the set of four orchestral suites that continue to be among Bach's most popular works. These brilliant dance suites were, without a doubt, heard in a Friday night concert series Bach curated in Leipzig, performed by a group known as the Collegium Musicum (a forerunner of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra). It's also a near-certainty that Bach did not write only four suites like this.

The exact number of Bach's works that are forever lost to history is unknown. Evidence suggests that what survives is less than half of what he wrote. We can only imagine the pieces we'll never hear.

But some of us have abilities to imagine with more details than others. Eric Nathan, a composer based in Providence, RI, has created two works that might be considered additions to those suites heard long ago on Friday nights in Leipzig. He did so by doing what Bach himself likely would have done: he raided the catalog of pieces he had already written, re-casting them in a new light.

The fact that Bach often built new movements and complete works out of previously composed music was, at one time, looked on with disdain. Now, though, those instances of recycling are considered further evidence of the composer's genius. So, in arranging these new suites from a variety of keyboard works, in a commission from Dr. Michael Sporn, Eric Nathan is simply picking up a thread Bach himself established.

Connections to Boston run through this recording of Nathan's suites. The first of them was premiered by A Far Cry, the dynamic conductor-less chamber orchestra based in Jamaica Plain and in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

The second, premiered at the Chelsea Music Festival in New York, features two performers with deep ties to the area. Amanda Hardy is the oboe soloist in the piece, which has the pseudo-concerto flavor of Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 2 for flute. Hardy, originally from the Midwest, is one of the Boston area's busiest musicians, playing regularly with the Boston Symphony and Pops, A Far Cry, and the Boston Philharmonic. She's also the Principal Oboist of the Portland Symphony Orchestra in Maine.

The entire recording is conducted by Ken-David Masur. Not only has Masur been an Associate Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he also spent his childhood in Leipzig, his father being Kurt Masur, legendary Music Director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Masur, now the Music Director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, has, to put it simply, deep, deep personal connections to Bach's music and the culture from which it grew.

Hear an interview with Eric Nathan and WCRB's Brian McCreath on Dancing with Bach:

For more information, to listen to a track sampler, and to purchase this recording, visit Eric Nathan's website.