Mu­sic of the Baroque era gets in­ter­preted by Bach Col­legium Ja­pan, whose mu­si­cians think of it as “new”.

The Georgia Straight - - Contents - By Alexan­der Varty

In Ja­pan, land of Liv­ing Na­tional Trea­sures, artists and ar­ti­sans can re­ceive for­mal recog­ni­tion—and a state stipend—for their work in dis­ci­plines as di­verse as gagaku, kabuki, doll-mak­ing, met­al­work, and weav­ing. The idea is to pre­serve what are called In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Prop­er­ties: the aes­thetic tra­di­tions that help de­fine Ja­panese iden­tity and that con­tinue to ex­ert an in­flu­ence over con­tem­po­rary Ja­panese cul­ture.

So it’s not sur­pris­ing that the is­land na­tion would be hos­pitable to cur­rent direc­tions in early mu­sic: his­tor­i­cally in­formed per­for­mance, in which once over­looked but his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate de­vices such as im­pro­vi­sa­tion are em­ployed to bring an­cient scores to life, and the use of pe­riod in­stru­ments or re­pro­duc­tions thereof, which dif­fer in both sound and ap­pear­ance from later mod­els. Bach Col­legium Ja­pan, which plays an Early Mu­sic Van­cou­ver con­cert this week­end, ad­heres to both, and has been en­thu­si­as­ti­cally re­ceived at home. But ac­cord­ing to its founder, key­boardist, and con­duc­tor, Masaaki Suzuki, that’s not be­cause of its deep re­spect for the past.

In­stead, he ex­plains in a tele­phone in­ter­view from Los An­ge­les, it’s be­cause, to Ja­panese ears, the mu­sic of Jo­hann Se­bas­tian Bach and his con­tem­po­raries sounds in­trigu­ing and new.

“The com­po­si­tions of Bach, es­pe­cially the vo­cal works, are quite far from the kind of Ja­panese sense of the lan­guage and also the cul­ture,” Suzuki says in care­ful but heav­ily ac­cented English. “So ev­ery­thing that I loved dur­ing my stu­dent time and also later on was very fresh.…lan­guage­wise, for ex­am­ple, we don’t have any­thing in com­mon. But once you learn the Ger­man texts, you can un­der­stand how im­por­tant it is to have good pronunciation and the cor­rect ac­cents and in­to­na­tion and so on.

“Of course, we all are Ja­panese, so we are very much in­flu­enced by our Ja­panese back­ground and cul­ture,” he con­tin­ues. “But still, you know, there is so much dif­fer­ence be­tween Ja­panese and Euro­pean cul­ture—and es­pe­cially Ger­man cul­ture. That makes it more fresh.”

Suzuki was in­tro­duced to Baroque mu­sic as a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Tokyo; he cites the ground­break­ing 1950s record­ings of Niko­laus Harnon­court and Con­cen­tus Mu­si­cus Wien as par­tic­u­larly in­flu­en­tial. Later on, he moved to Am­s­ter­dam, where he stud­ied with early-mu­sic roy­alty in the form of con­duc­tor and key­boardist Ton Koop­man. For the past 28 years, he and Bach Col­legium Ja­pan have been re­pay­ing his men­tors with a string of glow­ingly re­ceived record­ings of Bach, in­clud­ing a de­fin­i­tive, mul­ti­disc edi­tion of the com­plete can­tatas.

The great Ger­man will play a part in Bach Col­legium Ja­pan’s up­com­ing EMV show; Suzuki and com­pany will open with his Or­ches­tral Suite No. 2 in B Mi­nor. But the or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple be­hind the pro­gram is to take an in­ti­mate look at the mi­lieu that pro­duced Bach, us­ing scores by other com­posers that he per­son­ally owned, stud­ied, per­formed, and in some cases re­worked for the mu­si­cians at his dis­posal.

Bach’s fa­mous con­tem­po­raries An­to­nio Vi­valdi, Ge­org Philipp Tele­mann, and Ge­orge Fred­er­ick Han­del will be rep­re­sented, but so will two Ital­ian com­posers of com­pa­ra­ble skill but lesser renown, Francesco Conti and Alessan­dro Mar­cello.

“Bach was in­ter­ested in com­posers of vo­cal works, and he had made a copy [of Conti’s Languet an­ima mea],” Suzuki says of a piece that will be sung here by guest so­prano Joanne Lunn. “Also, he has added two oboes and a bas­soon to his vo­cal works. This piece also has kind of a half­way-sa­cred text, and that is a very in­ter­est­ing thing. We have ac­tu­ally recorded this al­ready, but that record­ing is not re­leased yet—but I’m very happy to per­form it.”

Mar­cello’s Oboe Con­certo in D Mi­nor, he goes on to say, was quite pop­u­lar dur­ing the early part of the 18th cen­tury—and has more re­cently en­joyed an un­ex­pected re­birth in Ja­pan. “Bach had ar­ranged this piece for the Hab­s­burg court mu­si­cians; there were 17 ar­range­ments by Bach for Hab­s­burg soloists—many of them Ital­ian com­posers’ con­certi—and this one was one of them. Ac­tu­ally, the first move­ment of Mar­cello’s oboe con­certo was once used for a Ja­panese TV com­mer­cial quite a long time ago, so this mu­sic has been quite pop­u­lar in Ja­pan.”

Whether we can de­duce any­thing about ei­ther the Ja­panese soul or Baroque mu­sic from this, Suzuki doesn’t say. But it’s a sure thing that the pro­gram he’s as­sem­bled for Bach Col­legium Ja­pan’s North Amer­i­can tour will of­fer new in­sights into mu­sic that, yes, still does sound fresh 300 years af­ter it was cre­ated.

“Bach never travelled, only through the mu­sic,” Suzuki points out. “So it is very in­ter­est­ing to know his sources, and to see his li­brary. I’m al­ways very, very much in­ter­ested in what he had lis­tened to and what he had ex­pe­ri­enced—and it’s very much help­ful to un­der­stand his mu­sic, as well.”

Bach Col­legium Ja­pan plays the Chan Cen­tre for the Per­form­ing Arts at 3 p.m. on Sun­day (De­cem­ber 9).

Bach Col­legium Ja­pan, un­der founder, key­boardist, and con­duc­tor Masaaki Suzuki (right), has found new, but his­tor­i­cally in­formed, ways to per­form the work of not only its name­sake, but other early com­posers.

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