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Zuill Bailey caps Northwest Bach Festival with extravagant cello performance

The final concert of this year’s Northwest Bach Festival featured internationally renowned cellist Zuill Bailey performing all six of the Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by J.S. Bach. Bailey has been designated the festival’s new artistic director following the 20-year leadership of Gunther Schuller, who came from Boston for this performance.

Written while Bach was in the employ of Prince Leopold of Coethen, the six suites were part of a productive part of Bach’s life in which the violin sonatas and partitas, Brandenburg Concerti, book one of the “Well-Tempered Clavier” and many other instrumental works were composed.

Bailey began Suite No. 1 in G major without spoken introduction. When he finished he commented “I don’t know how my brain is going to go through the focus and inspiration.” Referring to the performance of all six suites in order during a single concert, Bailey added, “It’s a very scary thing.”

Before Bailey performed Suite No. 4 in E flat major, he wryly told his audience that “All the rules change. The music now becomes like an animal untamed.” He was referring to the difficult key of E flat and that it would be “beautiful for the keyboard.” He continued to enrich the audience with a demonstration of how his mother, an organist, played the Prelude from this suite for him when he was first learning it.

After a much-needed extended intermission, for both audience and performer, Bailey performed the final two suites: No. 5 in C minor and No. 6 in D major with consummate technique and unbelievable feeling for Bach’s music.

Thirty-six movements in nearly three hours and no two sounded anything alike. The infinite variety of Bach’s musical mind was fully matched by Bailey’s immense understanding of these six suites. He told the audience that “Bach teaches you about yourself; Bach is a complex medicine and no other composer shows us something new each time.”

In a review such as this I only have space enough to mention one musical element of many that, in the incredible acoustical environment of St. John’s Cathedral, really caught my attention and earned my absolute admiration: dynamics. Bailey’s subtle shading and nuance, especially in the Sarabande (slow) movements was astonishing. The Sarabande in the Suite No. 5, which renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich called “the essence of Bach’s genius,” was performed as if time and space were suspended for both performer and audience. Yo-Yo Ma played the same movement Sept. 11, 2002, at the site of the World Trade Center.

Bailey received well-deserved standing ovations both after the first and second parts of the concert. As an encore, he played once again the famous Prelude from Suite No. 1 in G major. He dedicated this encore to Schuller, who appeared deeply moved by this homage from his successor; the concert ended with Bailey saying “the circle is complete.”