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If you were a liberal arts major in college, one of your degree requirements was probably something called Music Appreciation 101, a survey course of the western music tradition from ye olden days to around 1955.
In the “music lab” you hunched over turntables with clunky headsets. Now you can relive those thrilling days of yesteryear — this time around live and in color.
Take a break from the detritus of pop, set aside the iPod and YouTube. For the next three weeks, San Diego has a non-stop schedule of music from Bach to works composed 15 minutes ago, from the roots of the western tradition to the global inventions of the new century.
This is the first of three stories, crib notes for this figurative Music App class, which starts with the Bach Collegium. In the next story, the series moves on to the eighteenth through mid-twentieth centuries with Mainly Mozart and then in the third to San Diego New Music’s soundOn Festival.
A few preliminaries: Western fine art music has been marginalized. The music is viewed as the product of a bunch of dead white Europeans. Yet no matter how much the mainstream and alternative press ignores and pummels this music, millions of patrons go to concerts, download from iTunes and buy CDs.
This marginalized view was valid insofar as the world was technologically and geographically limited: No recordings, little opportunity for travel, etc. Still, thanks to the Ottoman Empire, Turkish rhythms and melodies drew composers like Mozart and long before that the Crusaders brought rhythms and harmonies of the Middle East back home.
In “The Rest is Noise,” his book on modern music, Alex Ross describes how earlier twentieth century composers danced to both pop and art music.
While some modernists, like Schoenberg, composed highly intellectual, inwardly looking abstract music, many others, like Bartok and Ravel, glommed on to folk (world) music and (African-American) jazz. Reversing the direction, Gershwin was drawn to the abstractionist Alban Berg. John Lennon and Yoko Ono popped some chords from a Sibelius symphony into a piece. Frank Zappa was passionate about Edgard Varese, who moved from Paris to New York where he wrote the ultra-violent music that the public ate up. A similar dance, with different elements, continues today, with groups like Ethel, eighth blackbird and Bang On A Can.
The ossified view of fine art music is increasingly unacceptable. Earlier this season, at Quartetto di Venezia’s ArtPower concert, a member of the audience asked the Venetians what contemporary Italian music sounds like. The first violinist answered that today, music has no national identity; rather it sings a global song that is either devoid of nationalism or unifies national sensibilities.
The excitement of the next four weeks is not only about the compositions but also about the artists. Most of you know I have jettisoned the term “classical music,” because it is meaningless in the current environment, and it freezes listeners into cliches. I also use the term “resident artists” rather than “local artists,” because too many San Diegans, who suffer a terminal inferiority complex, equate “local” with “lesser.”
Performers for the Bach Collegium and soundOn are from here and everywhere. Mainly Mozart’s orchestra is composed of principal and leading players from the U.S., including San Diego Symphony’s principal cellist, plus Canada and Hong Kong. Phenomenally talented and dedicated younger players bring energy and sometimes jolting perspectives that they get from the best of pop, to new and traditional repertoire. Live fine art music is like going to a museum and seeing a great and older artist like John Singer Sergeant with new eyes.
Start with Bach, then GO!
As you head through the month toward the last week, Bach is the place to start, said Ruben Valenzuela, the music director of the Bach Collegium. This weekend the group will present the composer’s B minor Mass, one of his final works before he died in 1750.
Bach laid the foundation for everything, Valenzuela explained. That includes harmony, melody, and compositional styles like the concerto as we know it. In Bach’s time, the idea of “keys” and picking a key to define the emotional message of a work comes to fruition.
Most importantly, Bach developed the principles of counterpoint, which at its basic level simply means how one note, one tone, relates to another; it increases in complexity, with two or more lines of music relating to each other. Counterpoint is how any composer organizes sound.
“If counterpoint is used, Bach is around the corner,” Valenzuela said. That goes for all the composers you’ll hear in Mainly Mozart and for new music. “If you look at all western music, you can judge it by its counterpoint. At some level, counterpoint is involved. It’s the cornerstone of music.”
The B minor Mass summarizes the composer’s accomplishments. Bach did not sit down and write the work, from beginning to end. Rather, he reached into his past, as far back as 1714 to produce a pastiche. Bach borrowed previously written pieces of the mass, like the “Kyrie” and “Gloria,” or reworked other pieces, especially cantatas. (Such recycling was not unusual in Baroque music.)
Bach included an example of every type of music he wrote. He went farther, though, using an example of every type of music known to him. “He’s also summing up an entire evolution of music going back 300-400 years,” Valenzuela said.
So in the B minor, you’ll hear Gregorian chant in the “Credo” and old style music in the “Kyrie.” For the “Laudamus te” and “Christe eleison,” he dips into the new idiom that his sons and later Haydn and Mozart would favor. But he doesn’t just go back. In the neutrality of tone in the “Homo Factus Est,” he anticipates the twentieth century abstraction of Schoenberg. “For a moment he leaps beyond,” Valenzuela said.
“Bach sets to do this toward the end of his life, when he is trying to put his house in order,” Valenzuela said.
Bach had plenty to put in order. By the time he was in his 60s, he had to produce liturgical music daily and weekly for his church gig. Valenzuela said that Bach probably left most of that work to his assistants. But Bach was also writing major works in addition to the B minor, such as the “Goldberg Variations” and the “Well-Tempered Clavier.” “He’s almost like an encyclopedia, saying I’m going to deal with all these compositional problems,” Valenzuela said.
The B minor is monumental for its scope and its demands. It requires “the biggest band we’ve put together,” Valenzuela said, even bigger than the forces for “Messiah.” The orchestra, led by Pierre Joubert, will number 26; ditto for the chorus, plus four soloists.
Ironically, the B minor was never used for and actual mass and was not performed in its entirety until 1859, a century after his death; it premiered in the United States in 1900. It is a strange hybrid. The B minor is a Latin Catholic mass from a dedicated Lutheran reformist. This is not too unusual, however, because in the seventeenth century, Lutheranism maintained Latin forms. Still, it could not have been used either in Lutheran or Catholic services, because Bach included text that would not have been acceptable to either religion.
Winding up its fifth season with the B minor Mass — a big step — the Bach Collegium is taking a big step as it establishes a firm footing in San Diego.
Valenzuela talked about more steps in just the next season: a collaboration with the San Diego Chamber Orchestra for Haydn’s massive “Creation;” a major Handel oratorio for the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death; taking the Bach Collegium to Los Angeles after this season’s trip to Mexico City. The “big one,” as Valenzuela describes it, is sponsoring a visit from the leading British keyboardist, Richard Egarr performing the “Goldberg Variations” at the Athenaeum.
Finally, Valenzuela is ready to develop a real staff to handle the growth, taking the pressure off the many volunteers who are doing the accounting, marketing and other organizational chores.
“Our contribution to the music scene here is what you find in nearly every major city in the United States,” Valenzuela said.
NEXT: Mainly Mozart, the twentieth season.
The Bach Collegium presents the Mass in B minor, with Ruben Valenzuela, conductor, and Pierre Joubert, leader. Sun. June 8, 4 p.m. and Mon. June 9, 7 p.m.; St James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, 743 Prospect Street, La Jolla. Tickets: Patron $60 (Reserved seating), General $35 (Non-reserved seating), Student: $25. Call 619.341.1726. http://www.bachcollegiumsd.org/index.html.