Boulder Bach Festival moves six degrees from Bach

Program features Impressionist and 21st-century composers, plus one Bach sonata

By Peter Alexander

Pianist Mina Gajić

Pianist Mina Gajić

The ever-broadening Boulder Bach Festival will end its 2014–15 season with a concert of music for violin and piano by Debussy, Ravel, the great violinist Eugene Ysaÿe, and Ray Granlund, a living and very eclectic American composer.

Oh yes—there will be a Bach sonata, too.

The performance, titled “Six Degrees of Separation,” will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (June 6) in Grusin Hall of the CU Imig Music Building. Concert pianist Mina Gajić will perform with violinist Zachary Carrettin, the music director of the Bach Festival. Tickets can be purchased online.

The program covers five composers, four centuries (from the 18th to the 21st), and a glittering array of styles. None of which exactly explains the “Six Degrees,” which seems to refer to all the ways the other composers are related back to Bach. Indeed, it has been a theme of the festival this year to celebrate not only the music of Bach, but the music that he inspired through the centuries.

“Bach had an enormous influence on virtually every subsequent composer,” Carrettin says. “For example, composers studied Bach’s approaches to form and harmony, and especially counterpoint. And also there are commonalities in the priorities of the composers chosen for this concert.”

One of those commonalities, Carrettin explains, is the exploration of musical ideas from other cultures and nationalities.

Zachary Carrettin

Zachary Carrettin

“Bach was influenced by his German organ predecessors, but also wrote frequently in the popular Italian and French styles,” he says. Similarly, “Ray [Granlund] wrote a piece that is supposed to be a tango, and yet has the rhythmic influence of a waltz. And Debussy’s sense of color and cross-cultural explorations cover styles from different countries. Flamenco, blues, wooden flute sounds—all of these are heard in the Violin and Piano Sonata.”

Eugene Ysaÿe

Eugene Ysaÿe

Another obvious connection with Bach is provided by the Sonata for solo violin by Eugene Ysaÿe, a violinist who was both a contemporary and a friend of Debussy. “Ysaÿe wrote six sonatas for unaccompanied violin, and they’re modeled on the six sonatas and partitas that Bach wrote for unaccompanied violin,” Carrettin says. “This sonata begins with movement called ‘Obsession,’ which includes multiple quotations of Bach, from the E-major Partita for solo violin.”

While Debussy, Ravel and Ysaÿe were contemporaries, Carrettin included Granlund as a way of tying the diverse program together, from Bach forward. “I think the composer that bridges this program together is the living composer Raymond Granlund,” he says. “His work is harmonically influenced by impressionism, expressionism, jazz and various world musics, but also his contrapuntal writing is exquisite.”

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy

Beyond these musical and stylistic connections among the composers, Carrettin finds more subtle connections to Bach that he calls poetic: “Debussy once failed a piano exam at the [Paris] Conservatory, because his Bach was, and I quote, ‘too expressive.’ So the program brings up a conversation not only about the connections between the composers, but also the playing styles and how we play Debussy now, in the 21st century, and how we play Bach now.”

For Carrettin, the answer to “how we play Bach” is defiantly non-dogmatic. He has played it with historic instruments; he has also played Bach on electric violin, and interwoven Bach’s music with the music of John Cage. Going into Grussin Hall, he and Gajić will be playing instruments that post-date both Bach and Debussy.

“For this performance, Mina [Gajić ] will be playing one of the extraordinary nine-foot Steinway pianos owned by the university,” he explains. “I’ll be playing a violin made in Chicago in 1963 by a great maker, I and I’ll be playing what we call a modern bow.”

Without going into the intricacies of violin bow history, that means the style of bow developed around 1780—after Bach’s lifetime but well before Debussy—that provides greater tension on the bow hairs. This in turn allows more pressure on the strings, and therefore greater volume.

“The equipment is an interesting question,” Carrettin continues. “When Mina and I rehearse we encounter such fascinating moments of crossroads. She has years of experience playing harpsichords, fortepianos, and especially 19th-century historic pianos, but now she’s playing this recital on a modern Steinway. And I have years of playing Baroque and classical period instruments with sheep-gut strings and convex archaic bows and no chin rests.

“The techniques of playing are different, but also what’s possible on the [modern] instruments is quite different. The timbre of a modern piano will shed light on different aspects inherent in Bach’s compositions. The same with the violin. The fingerings one chooses, or whether to elongate a phrase or break it up into smaller rhetorical statements—sometimes we make these decisions based on what instrument we’re using, and what the strengths are of that instrument.”

As for those famous six degrees of separation, here are some additional thoughts to ponder: Carrettin traces his violin instruction back to Archangelo Corelli, an Italian older contemporary of Bach; almost every pianist in the world can trace their teachers back to Beethoven, who studied Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier; and even the modern Steinway grand can trace its lineage back to Bach’s time, and the invention of the fortepiano by Bartolomeo Cristofori around 1700.

But you’ll have to find your own connections to Kevin Bacon.

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J.S. Bach

“Six Degrees of Separation”
Presented by the Boulder Bach Festival
Mina Gajić, piano, and Zachary Carrettin, violin
Music of Bach, Debussy, Ysaÿe, Ravel and Granlund
7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 6
Grusin Hall, Imig Music Building, CU Boulder

J.S. Bach: Sonata in C Minor for violin and clavier obligato, BWV 1017
Eugene Ysaÿe: Sonata #2 in A Minor for violin solo, “Jacques Thibaud”
Raymond Granlund: TangoPeregrino and TangoNometría
Maurice Ravel: Jeux d’eau (for piano solo)
Claude Debussy: Sonata in G Minor for violin and piano