It was a dark and stormy night… with the church roof creaking, the wind whistling and the sanctuary lights flickering as Vicki Boeckman welcomed new participants to November’s hybrid playing session. About a dozen people were on Zoom, nineteen in person in Vicki’s large group, and two participants with Laura Townsend in the Back Room Gang.
Sonatina from J. S. Bach’s Cantata #106
First on the agenda was the super slow Sonatina from Bach’s Cantata #106 (SSATB). Thought to be one of Bach’s earliest works (at age 22), it was composed for a funeral (of the mayor?), when Bach was the organist at Divi Blasii Church in Mühlhausen, Germany. Vicki had recently returned from Portland where she was playing this piece, as part of the liturgical calendar to commemorate All Saints’ Day. Our arrangement, by Daniel Harmer, had the three lower voices pretending to be viols; we were encouraged to imagine playing with bows. To make them sound like sighs, Vicki said to emphasize the first note in the paired sixteenth note slurs.
The two soprano voices had moments of beautiful, heartfelt tension, where Vicki coached them not to shy away from the dissonance nor from the length of the appoggiaturas on the trills. The great basses supplied the rest of us with lots of repeated C’s : “Make them all different and intense,” Vicki instructed. As the lower voices summoned all the breath support they could, Vicki conducted us in a “heavy four” count in this epitome of gorgeous writing. At the end Vicki exclaimed, “Nice, beautiful, lovely! If you ever have the opportunity to play with a choir singing this Cantata, take it!”
Glory and Honour and Laud by Dr. Charles Wood
Now warmed up, we were introduced to Dr. Charles Wood’s Glory and Honour and Laud, written in 1925 – a year before his death, and arranged by Daniel Harmer for an eight voice double choir. Dr. Wood was Irish, studied at Cambridge and excelled in composing eight part vocal music. Vicki suggested we imagine that we were singing as we played: using articulation that emulated the text, and breathing at the punctuation marks. An open fifth at the end of a phrase early in the music felt extremely holy, and at the first key change to D Major a bit later, it felt like the sun came out!
There was a really cool part where the tenors played what sounded like church bells chiming as they played repeated sets of four descending notes for seventeen measures over the drone of the basses – while the upper four voices played a duet. Some more key changes, time changes and tempo changes kept us on our toes, and overall the piece had a valiant and joyous affect. “Yea, isn’t that fun? Cool!” exclaimed Vicki. (Yes, it was!) What a great piece – this one would also be fabulous to play along with singers.
Badinerie by J.S. Bach
For our final piece we were back to the Baroque with Bach’s enchanting Badinerie (meaning “a little joke”) from his Orchestral Suite #2. This familiar and delightful piece had the tenors holding down the fort with a heartbeat, and giving shape to the two bar phrases. The tenor part was a reduction of the second violins and violas, while “the basses (recorder) were the basses (viols).” The altos (solo flute) kept themselves extremely busy with high and fast notes, but Vicki said this wasn’t about the (right) notes – at least not while sight-reading. We should feel like we were tiptoeing around the dance floor in ballet slippers, not wooden shoes! Our staccato notes should be light, but not too short, and at the first repeat sign “there’s no mercy,” that is, no space before returning back to the beginning.
Vicki had arranged the altos in two separate lines to give a call-and-response effect, and to “give more altos the chance to join in the fray,” but also encouraged those who were game and had the score to play the entire alto part. After our last and fastest time through, Vicki applauded us, “Yes, you did it!” and repeated “Fun, fun, fun” more times than I could count!