Letter from Eugene Drucker

A Letter from our Music Director

Having been asked to take over after 23 years of Kenneth Cooper’s inspired leadership, I hope to steer Bach at New Year’s in a somewhat different direction. A number of other composers will be featured alongside Bach; some, like Mozart, equally famous, one whose fame eclipsed that of Bach during their lifetimes (Telemann), and one who has been unjustly neglected (William Boyce). The offerings represent a broad spectrum of styles, ranging chronologically from Henry Purcell to Bela Bartók. These concerts have always celebrated the passage from one year to the next, so, in a sense, they are all about Time, reflecting the experiences and accomplishments of the past, and looking ahead to the future.

We’ll usher in the New Year with joyous, openhearted music—beginning with Mozart’s youthful, buoyant Divertimento in D, closing the first half with his fifth and final violin concerto (written at the ripe old age of 19), and sending you away with Bach’s spirited Orchestral Suite in C ringing in your ears. In between, you’ll hear—maybe for the first time—William Boyce’s engaging First Symphony, in a style strongly reminiscent of his older contemporary, George Frederic Handel. Then you’ll experience the grandeur and pathos of Purcell’s Chacony, the ingenious counterpoint of one of his Fantasias and the celebratory pomp of brief selections transcribed from a Purcell keyboard suite and from The Faerie Queene.

Joel Pitchon and I will observe the holiday with three of Bartók’s atmospheric New Year’s Songs (from a collection of 44 short duos for violin students, graded in difficulty; these come from the middle of the set, so I think we can handle them!—but I’ve asked flutist Judith Mendenhall for a little help). Our four new violinists will perform Telemann’s Concerto in D, a virtuosic rarity without orchestral accompaniment.

A quick, fiery Contrapunctus from Bach’s The Art of the Fugue—the one made famous by the Swingle Singers half a century ago—will be followed by three fugues that Mozart transcribed for string quartet from The Well- Tempered Clavier. The vigorous opening movement of Bach’s Orchestral Suite, after a majestic slow introduction, is also fugal. One of the goals of this year’s program is to celebrate this aspect of Bach’s genius: the ever-shifting moods, textures and strategies of his astonishingly inventive counterpoint.

We offer some of this music, originally written for stringed instruments, in transcription for winds, or with winds added to a predominantly string sound. You’ll notice the absence of a keyboard instrument, which for me was the only logical way to go, at least in this first year after decades of playing with one of the world’s most charismatic harpsichordists. Only two of the programmed works would normally have a continuo part: Boyce’s symphony and Bach’s suite. With the left hand, the harpsichordist plays the bass line, which is doubled by the cello, string bass and (sometimes) bassoon; with the right hand, the player improvises on and embellishes the harmonic progressions. I believe we are fortunate to hear the Boyce symphony with or without keyboard, because his works rarely appear on any concert programs nowadays. In Bach’s suite, the strings, oboes and bassoon are so active that I don’t think the distinctive sound of the harpsichord will be greatly missed; nothing essential to the structure of this masterpiece will be lost without keyboard.

Maybe Bach intended The Art of the Fugue for the organ, but in this, his unfinished masterpiece (which occupied his mind throughout the 1740s, summing up a life’s work in the labyrinthine intricacies of counterpoint), he never specified an instrument. It’s such pure music that it can work equally well for keyboard, string quartet, a cappella choir or string orchestra. By contrast, the 48 preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier are clearly and idiomatically written for the keyboard.

Most of J.S. Bach’s music was considered old-fashioned by the late 18th century, but at the home of the Baron van Swieten, a great connoisseur, the 26-year-old Mozart discovered a treasure trove of Baroque music. The Baron did not place The Well-Tempered Clavier in Mozart’s hands in vain: the young genius studied a number of these fugues by transcribing them for string trio and quartet, later incorporating into his own compositions some of the techniques he learned through this exercise. In the spirit of Mozart’s project, I have re-transcribed one of these fugues for a woodwind quartet and scored another for a mixed ensemble of strings and winds.

No matter how specifically Bach may have targeted most of his music for particular instruments, there is a core of spirit and meaning that transcends the characteristics of any single setting. For that reason, his magisterial and heartfelt Chaconne for solo violin resonates in piano transcriptions by Brahms and Busoni; indeed, all his works can be interpreted persuasively through what is generally known as “authentic performance practice” as well as a more modern approach—or a hybrid of the two. The essential quality and depth of his music will always shine through.

In a departure from our programming of the past 23 years, Mozart will be given more “air time” than Bach. But some of that focus reveals the influence that Bach had on a composer three generations his junior after his music had gone out of style. It’s a fascinating aesthetic exercise to consider Bach’s work through the perspective of an equally prodigious musical mind. On a small scale, these transcriptions foreshadow Mendelssohn’s famous revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829.

This year’s program may constitute a “variety pack” of Baroque and later music—a tasting menu, if you will—but if there is one unifying theme, it’s the ability of all these composers to write contrapuntally, to think and hear multi- dimensionally. Harmony and counterpoint are equally important pillars of the magnificent literature that has been handed down to us. Performers and aficionados alike are the beneficiaries of this legacy, and the New Year’s holiday is a perfect time to celebrate our heritage.

Eugene Drucker

New York City