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BACH RETUNED: Local harpsichordists launch potentially revelatory Bach project

When we listen to Bach’s keyboard music today, do we hear the same thing he did 300 years ago? It’s the kind of question that spurs musicians and lay music-lovers alike to ponder and explore historical practices. For example: Anyone who took a music history class in the last century was probably taught that Bach composed the 48 Preludes and Fugues of his Well-Tempered Clavier in all 24 keys in order to show the efficacy of equal temperament, whereby all 12 pitches of the scale are spaced equally when tuned (as on the modern piano). Yet most scholars today believe this to be false, pointing out that Bach himself did not, in fact, use equal temperament, but instead something more closely in line with normal early-18th-century practice (possibly even various tunings, in fact, for different occasions). While these Baroque methods of tuning are too complex to go into here, the main point is that the 48 preludes and fugues of Books 1 and 2 of what musicians call WTC are considerably “spiced up” when played on a harpsichord using a tuning from Bach’s day because in this manner every key sounds a little bit different, has its own personal character—some more “mellow” and some more remote or tart than others. (Continued below.)

“Playing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in today’s equal temperament is like exhibiting Rembrandt paintings with wax paper taped over them,” the ever-provocative scholar and critic Kyle Gann has written. This may be the hyperbole of a specialist, but it seems evident that we stand to learn much by hearing Bach played in tunings more like those he himself heard while composing. Toward this end, two fearless local keyboard whizzes, Marian Thomas and Rebecca Bell, have embarked on an incredibly admirable four-year (!) project to study and perform all 48 of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues from this magnum opus, which they will play in a series of recitals on a harpsichord specially tuned to a 1691 system called Werckmeister III—named for its 17th-century inventor, Andreas Werckmeister.

The first of these recitals takes place at 12:10 p.m. on March 18th at Westport Presbyterian Church, 201 Westport Road, as part of the Brown Bag Concert Series (which Marian founded, and is now in its 17thseason) sponsored by the Westport Center for the Arts. It will include Preludes and Fugues Nos. 1-7 and No. 9 from Book 2, performed by Marian and Rebecca alternating—two of Kansas City’s most remarkable musicians. They will play on a Hubbard “kit” of a French double harpsichord in the style of Paul Taskin. (“Kit” meaning the harpsichord came in pieces, and Marian constructed the instrument herself!) The recital is free, but donations are gladly accepted. See www.westportcenterforthearts.org.

The Well-Tempered Clavier is a set of two volumes, each containing 24 preludes and accompanying fugues, composed/compiled in 1722 and 1742 but not published until 1801, more than 50 years after the composer’s death. The first book bears a title-page stating the set is intended “for the profit and use of musical youths desirous of learning, and for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.” These two books together present the vast range of styles prevalent during Bach’s lifetime, as well as some of the most magisterial fugues ever composed. In the two centuries since the publication of this oeuvre,it has become one of the most influential bodies of music in Western history. Both books are filled with untold delights, which many musicians have spent a lifetime discovering—beginning with Beethoven, who considered them a foundation of contrapuntal composition, and continuing in the Romantic period with Robert Schumann, who said that pianists should make them their “daily bread.”

“The amazing thing to me is that Bach’s genius in counterpoint and harmony does not take away from his genius in creating beautiful music,” Marian wrote recently in an email. “One can listen to the Well-Tempered Clavier Preludes and Fugues without knowing a thing about how a fugue is constructed, and still enjoy the gorgeous music. Knowing how the music is put together only adds to the depth of enjoyment.” We wish both ladies godspeed as they set out on this incredible Bachian journey!

IN BRIEF:

* Quality Hill Playhouse presents Look to the Rainbow: The Lyrics of Yip Harburg, from March 11th through April the 10th at Quality Hill Playhouse. This singing tribute to one of America’s greatest lyricists ever (“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Old Devil Moon,” “Over the Rainbow”) features pianist/emcee J. Kent Barnhart. It includes a look at Yip’s fascinating life as a first-generation American immigrant and his successes on Broadway and in Hollywood (Finian’s Rainbow, The Wizard of Oz). Kent is joined for this rousing revue by Jessalyn Kincaid, Ken Remmert and Julie Shaw. For tickets call 816-421-1700 or go to www.qualityhillplayhouse.com.

* Pianist Garrick Ohlsson is one of the most elegant pianists I know, but in addition to his limpid approach to Chopin he can tackle a Beethoven “Hammerklavier” like an offensive lineman. He’ll bring both power and grace to play at his Friends of Chamber Music recital on March 19th at the Folly Theater. The program includes a first half of the music he is still best known for, that of Chopin (he won the 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition and in 2008 released a 16-disc set of the composer’s complete works), and a second half of music by Enrique Granados (including three movements from Goyescas). Call 816-561-9999 or go to www.chambermusic.org.

* Remember Quartet Accorda, the Park University-based group whose future seemed threatened when two of the members—violinist and former Kansas City Symphony concertmaster Kanako Ito and her husband, cellist Martin Storey—moved to Great Britain for Martin’s new job as principal cello of the BBC Scottish Symphony? Well they’re back for a visit, and Accorda will ride again. At 3 p.m. on March 20th at Graham Tyler Memorial Chapel on the Park campus they’ll perform music of Martinu (the Duo for Violin and Cello) and Beethoven (Quartet in F minor, Op. 95, “Serioso”), and they’ll be joined by Marina Sultanova for the Dvořák Piano Quintet. Accorda Quartet also includes violinist and Park faculty member Ben Sayevich and violist Chung-Hoon Peter Chun. Admission is $5. Members of the Park University community are admitted free with their Park ID card. Go towww.park.edu.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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