Bach Sonatas and Partitas: Standing the Test of Time (and 11 different violinists)

February 13, 2020, 8:00 AM · As I took my seat with 500 others to hear 11 violinists of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s unaccompanied Sonatas & Partitas, I wondered how the canon would fare. Three hundred years after the completion of this epic tour de force, I can report with confidence, the S&Ps not only remain one of the finest displays of the violin’s magnificence, but the KSO violinists may have found an entirely new and delightful way of presenting them.

Let’s be honest. There are very few violinists who can sustain two-and-a-half hours of unaccompanied Bach. And possibly even fewer who can rise to the technical challenges Bach places on the fiddler. Yet put the S&Ps in the capable hands of not one, but 11 talented violinists, the movements have the potential to become a beautiful string of gems that each sparkle in a unique and engaging manner.

Knoxville Violinists
Violinists of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.

I knew that writing about 11 performers would be tricky. What if the violinists were dramatically unequal in ability? What if a few players suffered from stage fright? What if some stole the limelight from the rest? It turns out my fears were completely unfounded. Each of the 11 violinists delivered a stellar performance and truly proved to be a jewel within a lustrous musical crown.

Sonata No. 1, G minor

When I-Pei Lin delicately took the stage, it was hard to imagine that her sound would fill Knoxville’s magnificent Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. But it did — and with richness and beauty. Her triple stops were always gentle, never harsh, and her understanding of the harmonic framework brought the music to life. She commanded the audience’s attention to the point I believed you could hear a pin drop. And her decrescendo on the final chord was something I may never forget.

She was followed by the sumptuous playing of Mary Pulgar, who brings a true alto timbre in the richness of her sound. Her approach was operatic in nature, which underscored the music’s fundamental drama. She has a fluid bow arm (which I covet) and is a performer who shows you where the beauty lies within the music, as evidenced by her seamless and unexaggerated hemiolas.

Partita No. 1, B minor

Edward Pulgar truly brought the romance with his luscious tone and he made you believe these movements were written specifically for him. He displayed razor-like precision in his bow arm and his intonation was impeccable. I happen to know that Edward’s normal orchestral seat is Principal Second, and I wondered if this might be why he seemed to truly understand the value of the lower register.

The pairing with Kyle Venlet proved to be a wonderful study in contrasts. We moved from Edward’s mature romantic style to Kyle’s incredibly sweet and honest approach. And both worked beautifully, demonstrating there is no one "right" way to play Bach. There were absolutely no gimmicks or histrionics in Kyle's playing. With his unassuming manner, he graciously invited you inside the music. It was all I could do not to get up and dance.

Sonata No. 2, A minor

Zofia Glashauser is one of those players who is completely in command of her instrument. Her rich sound filled the cathedral and she captured Bach’s challenge of being both virtuostic and technically accurate simultaneously. Her musicianship was impeccable, as demonstrated by her deep understanding of the "Fuga." She dug in more the harder the music got, seemingly pulling the sound out of her instrument.

Ruth Bacon
Ruth Bacon, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra violinist.

Her partner, Ruth Bacon, was equally strong. She brought incredible finesse, grace, and elegance to her performance. She took the stage with a commanding presence (she holds herself like a dancer) and never lost focus nor intensity. She has a rich, warm sound that she coaxes from an instrument that literally seems to be part of her body.

Partita No. 2, D minor

Sean Claire and Sarah Ringer probably didn’t realize what a wonderful pair they would make when they independently selected the movements they would perform. They each delivered a silky smooth tone and an interpretation that was thoughtful, emotional, and deeply personal. Sarah’s “Sarabande” was breathtakingly calm and serene. She was emotive and expressive without ever going too far. And Sean’s “Ciaccona” was hauntingly beautiful, as he offered listeners a roadmap for traversing all the harmonic complexities. He built this epic movement to a terrific climax in which it actually sounded like multiple violinists were playing.

Sonata No. 3, C major

Concertmaster William Shaub had the idea to create this concert out of his desire to showcase the talent within his orchestra. But on this particular evening, he was no longer producer nor Concertmaster. He was simply one of the team and he fit in seamlessly.

William Shaub
William Shaub, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster.

That said, his brilliant tone and stellar technique were clearly on display. (As someone in the audience said, “This is a man who isn’t afraid to play his violin!”) Will didn’t shy away from the unrelenting chords in the "Fuga," building from one to the next. Prior to his performance, Will aptly described the great fugue as “Bach’s reemergence from despair” following his wife’s death. Will truly captured the sense of rising from tragedy and moving forward with purpose, gliding between delicate passages and virtuostic fireworks. On the final chord, the sustained perfect fifth was so perfectly in tune that I swear I heard overtones. His sound positively shimmered in the “Allegro assai” and he made the bar lines disappear. Sean Claire returned mid-Sonata with a rendition of the “Largo” that was an emotional show stopper.

Partita No. 3, E major

Rachel Loseke described this partita as an “after dinner mint following a full five-course meal.” Her description nailed it, as did her performance! Her bright, energetic sound always kept us grounded in the cantus firmus, while the filigree was delicately layered on top. Rachel’s a sympathetic performer who brings out the pathos, yet with a beautiful naiveté. She played the “Loure" brilliantly. (Full disclosure: The “Loure” is my favorite movement in the entire work. Picking a favorite movement is a bit like picking a favorite child. You’re not supposed to! But since I have only one child, I’ve got a clear favorite. The same is true with the S&P movements and mine is the "Loure.")

I had hoped the momentum Rachel set in this beautifully violin-friendly key of E major would be sustained and Audrey Pride was certainly up to the task. She brought a fresh, pure tone and trills so tight you could bounce a quarter off them. Rather than rushing through her dance numbers, she took the tiniest step back and gave us a chance to hear the close harmonies. Her restrained use of vibrato was quite remarkable. When she sparingly doled out her warm vibrato, it was like nectar we didn’t realize we were thirsting for. And in the final movement (the only one I can personally handle without disgracing myself) she played with such elegance the music virtually floated.

From One Epic Masterpiece to Another

While listening to Bach’s masterpiece, I couldn’t help but think of another masterpiece that has been in the headlines of late. The term “U. S. Constitution” was used in print or speeches 1.5 billion times in the past two weeks. (Okay, so I completely made that up. But I know the actual usage had to be somewhere in that vicinity.) The Constitution is 233 years old, yet, to this day we debate how to interpret it and the intentions of its authors.

For me, discussion of the “framers” and the continued relevance of this esteemed document brought to mind Bach and the constant debate of performance practices that surrounds his music. We wrestle with what we think Bach intended, what type of sound he had in his mind’s ear, and whether we have a hope in hell of doing his music justice. We argue over bow holds, vibrato usage, tempi, and tuning pitch. Where there is seemingly no dispute, as with the Constitution, is that the S&Ps are a veritable masterpiece. The work transcends the rhetoric and dares you not to love it, simply on its own merits.

Alas, the harsh reality is this: When you put your work out into the universe — be it the Constitution or Bach’s S&Ps — you subject it to the vicissitudes of the cultural climate and, to a degree, the whims of its interpreters. Your work may receive a glorious interpretation or an absolute battering. The great works will survive even the lesser fate.

The S&Ps unite thousands of violinist the world over. They are, in a sense, a rite of passage … a badge of honor. As violinists, we’ve pledged our allegiance to them and strive to attain the musical and technical level they require. And, as the violinists of the KSO proved, within those 27 movements, there is something that personally speaks to each of us. The S&Ps undoubtedly have another 300-plus years of ambitious violinists with whom to wrestle.

A Final Note

I will close with a beautiful passage written by John Eliot Gardiner that I have used in the past. I simply cannot write about Bach without these words coming to mind:

“For this is what is so distinctive when we compare Bach’s legacy to that of his forerunners and successors. Monteverdi gives us the full gamut of human passions in music, the first composer to do so; Beethoven tells us what a terrible struggle it is to transcend human frailties and to aspire to the Godhead; and Mozart shows us the kind of music we might hope to hear in heaven. But it is Bach, making music in the Castle of Heaven, who gives us the voice of God — in human form. He is the one who blazes a trail, showing us how to overcome our imperfections through the perfections of his music: to make divine things human and human things divine.”

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February 13, 2020 at 08:25 PM · I was there, too. You have perfectly described each violinist! Thank you! We are proud of our strings in the KSO!

February 14, 2020 at 02:24 AM · Thank you Diana for bringing to life this concert for those of us who were unable to attend. Knoxville is lucky to have such wonderful musicians, such a beautiful venue in which to perform, and such a wonderful community that supports its musicians by attending their concerts. And we are fortunate to have your wonderful musical and writing skills.

February 14, 2020 at 03:56 AM · A beautiful story, and a wonderful idea — thank you!

Makes me wish there'd be collaborative Bach Sonata & Partita "play-ins" all around the country this year :)

February 14, 2020 at 01:59 PM · To 37: Thank you! And, yes, we are proud of them!

152: I appreciate your kind comment. Knoxville does have so much to offer.

David:Thank you so much! And I love your idea! Kind of like a "Messiah sing-along"!!!

February 14, 2020 at 06:24 PM · I can’t tell you how upset I am that I was unable to attend that concert especially since the violin is my favorite instrument. I heard Will announce it at our Knoxville Opera sitzprobe last week, but we had a rehearsal on the concert night. Not only did I miss hearing this glorious music, but I would have loved to support Will and Sean, two of the violinists that I know very well.

I loved “It was all I could do not to get up and dance.” I will do that for you next time I hear this music. “An after-dinner mint following a full five-course dinner” were the perfect choice of words as was “nectar”. But the analogy of interpreting Bach and interpreting the US Constitution brought it all together. Both so timely now!

The Sonatas and Partitas certainly do unite hundreds of violinists all over the world, but music unites the world - races, religions - all of us. There is nothing greater and it continues to transcend all our problems and everything going on in the world.

Thank you again for a marvelous article. I haven’t read one yet that you wrote that I didn’t learn something from and love reading.

February 14, 2020 at 08:06 PM · Joe: I'm also sorry that you were not able to attend. Thank you, as always, for such a thoughtful and positive comment. It is greatly appreciated! As for the dancing, well.... I think I'm okay for now!

February 15, 2020 at 01:34 PM · Thanks so much for sharing this evening with us in a way that lets us imagine it! I would have loved to be there to hear it, but you have activated my mind's ear with your wonderful description of each presentation. Keep 'em coming!

February 15, 2020 at 06:08 PM · 207: Thank you so much for this lovely comment, which encourages me to keep trying. I appreciate it so very much.

February 17, 2020 at 06:37 PM · I was there as well. Diana, your article is a magnificent distillation of what went on that night. I feel sorry for those who missed such a wonderful performance.

February 18, 2020 at 07:36 PM · 253: Thank you so much! Yes, it was certainly a performance not to be missed!

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