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Bach Among the Folkies

February 19, 2008

The classics are invading Berkeley's venerable folk-music coffeehouse, the Freight and Salvage. It started with one harmless Monday night per month. But on Feb. 12, the Freight added a second classical show for leap month: Solo Bach Night.
Where will it all end? Folkies singing Kumbaya and labor hymns in plaid workshirts, top hats, and tails?

Some performances last Tuesday were familiar, despite the unusual venue — Bach solos performed on violin, cello, piano, and flute. Others were nontraditional arrangements for mandolin, mandocello (tenor mandolin), electric guitar, and electric bass. If you're already handicapping which performances succeeded best, you might be surprised by some of the results.

The standout was acclaimed Canadian violinist Lara St. John, who offered two of J.S. Bach’s most challenging solo pieces, the Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005, and the Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004. She played with spookily flawless intonation, sweeping dynamic breadth, and an unerring feel for the music's emotional content.

Talk about the passion: St. John performed for long stretches with her eyes closed, looking thoroughly transported as she brought us along for the flight. She appeared to end the Sonata's Fuga in tears. I'm not sure how often you see that at Davies Hall.
Pocket Bach
The program's second delight was Oakland-based mandolinist Mike Marshall. Renowned initially as a bluegrass performer (NPR addicts hear him weekly on Car Talk’s theme music), he's since branched out into many other styles. Notably, he's recorded four albums with his classical mandolin quartet, and the man can play Bach.

Opening with three movements from the Violin Partita No. 1 in B Minor, BWV 1003, Marshall immediately widened the dynamic range you might have expected from the mandolin. With its bright tone and sharp attack, the instrument sends Bach's most triumphant violin passages on a holiday in Vivaldi's sunnier Italy.

"It's tuned just like a violin," Marshall told us with a wink, so Bach's violin pieces "should ostensibly work on it. It's just that I have a very small bow," he added, holding up his flatpick.

Marshall's firm interpretation showed the years of Bach study to which he confessed. Tasteful Baroque ornaments and trills were all there. If he occasionally crunched a note, you wondered how he could articulate this virtuoso music at all on the mandolin's tiny upper frets.

"Bach didn't have one of these," Marshall confirmed as he switched to a mandocello for two movements from the First Cello Suite (G Major, BWV 1007). This guitar-size instrument has four pairs of strings tuned, yes, like a cello's.

Marshall's fingering was even surer on this longer-necked instrument. And the cello music was transformed, since the mandocello's timbre falls somewhere between a clavichord's and harpsichord's. It’s a characteristically Baroque instrument, even though it dates only from 1902.
Improvising Cousins
Switching back to mandolin, Marshall let down his (and Bach's) long hair. He played the Third Violin Sonata's final movement (Allegro assai), a bravura rabbit chase, in classic bluegrass style — pizzicato articulations, slight syncopations, damped flatpicking, and ringing parallel-string arpeggios.

The amazing thing is that he made the music sound as if it had been intended for this (literally) offbeat interpretation. As audience members whooped with delight afterward, I began to wonder whether Cöthen’s Kapellmeister had made some never-documented tour of Kentucky, circa 1720. If, as some people contend, all music rooted in brilliant melodic improvisation is complementary, then Bach, Charlie Parker, and Bill Monroe are jamming in heaven as you read this.

The evening's third treat was Sam Bass, who performed the Cello Suite No. 6 in D Major, BWV 1012, on an actual cello. His interpretation was authoritative, marred only by a couple of false starts and occasional intonation glitches.

As a coda, Bass performed a solo titled Julie-o, by Turtle Island String Quartet cellist Mark Summer. Rooted in traditional Celtic music, the piece also acknowledged Bach’s chordal techniques, and some 20th-century conventions like sliding blue notes. It all cohered uncannily well. A particularly ingenious section of two-handed tapping had jaws dropping all around me.

Dave Grossman, who performed the Second Cello Suite (in D Minor, BWV 1008) on a seven-string electric bass, was also the evening's organizer and emcee. Grossman has previously presented three Solo Bass Nights at the Freight, and the next one will be on May 15. For those curious about the bass guitar's surprising potential as a contemporary solo instrument, last year's version augurs another great showcase.

Rounding out last Tuesday's three-hour marathon were solos from three of Grossman's friends and collaborators, Fred Weed on piano, Lynda Arnold on flute, and Kelly Back on electric guitar. All gave earnest Bach renditions. And all received warm applause from a denim-clad, classics-savvy audience that remained intent and enthusiastic throughout the evening.

Michael Katz is a writer and sometime classical guitarist. He has freelanced for the Berkeley Daily Planet, The San Francisco Examiner, The Onion, and The Boston Globe.