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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Review: Concert ‘reimagines’ Bach in 13 ways

Donivan Johnson Correspondent

The third concert of this year’s Northwest Bach Festival featured piano virtuoso Lara Downes, who performed the 2004 work “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg: Bach Re-Imagined” on Saturday night. The title is taken from a 1917 poem by Wallace Stevens, “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

Thirteen American composers, representing a wide range of ages and musical styles, were commissioned to write a brief work based on the aria from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” BWV 988 composed in 1741.

Because of a family illness, scheduled performer William Doppmann canceled his performance of the entire “Goldberg Variations.”

To ready the audience at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist for the Spokane premiere of a new work, Connoisseur Concerts provided a recorded version of Glenn Gould’s 1955 breakthrough performance of the “Goldberg Variations.”

Connoisseur Concerts and Executive Director Gertrude M. Harvey moved quickly to ensure that the festival would have a concert worthy of its reputation for excellence.

While many, including myself, were somewhat disappointed about the change, once the concert began all negative thoughts and expectations were moot.

Downes introduced the work and gave a short description of each composer and their composition created for this “suite.”

Rather than play “straight through,” she divided the 13 selections into smaller groups. This helped the listener and guided the experience of hearing totally new music and relating it to Bach’s work. Her brief descriptions were engaging.

Each movement is a commentary on the aria and included such compositional techniques as blues, jazz, neo-romanticism, humor, limited use of keyboard in the upper two octaves, mild to extreme use of dissonance, and one movement for left hand alone.

The astonishing technical and, more importantly, emotional spectrum demonstrated by the soloist was very much appreciated by the audience, which gave her a standing ovation.

I have never experienced a more moving rendition of the aria, Gould included, than that of Downes at the beginning and end of the 13 movements. It was sublime.

I believe Bach would have approved of this new way of looking at his music and its performance for a number of reasons: Bach was a renowned improviser who constantly changed other composers’ works; the exquisite concert grand piano that was provided by the Dr. Jonathan A. Holloway Foundation for this concert; the introduction of a technical innovation (new to many audience members) of having all the music uploaded on an electronic reader with page turning facilitated by a foot pedal; and the sonorous acoustical space of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.

 A musical DNA sample of a composer who died more than 260 years ago has been revitalized, renewed and reimagined for the edification and experience of those fortunate to be present Saturday evening.

Donivan Johnson, who lives in Metaline Falls, Wash., is a composer, lecturer and music instructor for the Selkirk School District.
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