Let them listen to Bach
Over that past 25 years, Da Camera of Houston's artistic director and founder Sarah Rothenberg has conceived a je ne sais quoi approach to programming music that's akin to a brilliant work of visual Pointillism. Think of George Seurat's Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte - 1884.
As it majestically hangs center stage in one of the Impressionism galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago, the image is scientifically cohesive from afar. But get too close and the shapes diffuse into a mystery or dots begging to be unraveled — and connected.
Each blotch of paint behaves as if it were its own island.
Da Camera's strategy is no different. Look too close and very little makes sense. But once you understand how each particular element plays on the other, the significance that is embedded in the interdependence and the dialogue between the works just makes you smile. Because it's thoughtful, it's masterful and you couldn't imagine it any other way.
So what does Pierre Jalbert, Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelssohn have in common? Other than they are all composers in the genre of classical music. And their oeuvres are on the printed playbill for Da Camera's "25th Anniversary Celebration" at Wortham Theater Center Friday.
Within inches of the program, it's a nonsensical arrangement, especially as this concert celebrates the nonprofit's silver anniversary. One would think — and one would be correct for doing so — that Rothenberg has a justification for this bricolage of new and old tunes, that they are fused around some sort of motif.
"When I think of Da Camera, I think of creative and unique programming and great chamber music. So I wanted the piece to somehow reflect that."
"There's a wonderful practice in the Baroque period to commission pieces in light of momentous occasions," Rothenberg explains. "Think of Handel's Water Music or Bach's Brandenburg Concerti — commissioning new works is a time honored tradition dating back to the time of Bach."
Rothenberg imagined the sounds of brass instruments tolling a reverberant flourish that herald the accomplishments of an arts presenting organization thriving in the 21st century. She enlisted Shepherd School of Music composition faculty, Prix de Rome and Stoeger Award winner Pierre Jalbert to note an antiphonal fanfare that evoked a sense of arrival, an ethos of grandeur.
"When I think of Da Camera, I think of creative and unique programming and great chamber music," Jalbert explains. "So I wanted the piece to somehow reflect that."
Instead of assembling a large ensemble on stage, Jalbert opted for three musicians positioned throughout the hall to create spatial and antiphonal effects. His Fanfare Da Camera for brass is scored for two trumpets and one trombone.
"The trombonist is placed on stage and each trumpet is placed in a balcony on the right and left side of the auditorium," he explains. "The trombonist functions as a kind of soloist while the trumpets echo each other in canonic imitation. The three come together at the very end to present a more chordal, homophonic texture in celebratory fashion."
Jalbert's harmonic language is wonderfully colorful, says Rothenberg, the kind that would welcome something fantastic in the Baroque era.
"I am performing Bach because of a variety of reasons," Rothenberg explains. "Da Camera also presents jazz. And just as Bach appeals to classical tastes, Bach has inspired some of the giants of jazz of this and past generations."
She is right. Bach has mused pianists Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Oscar Peterson, trumpeters Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis, among other musicians of international repute.
"I am performing Bach because of a variety of reasons. Da Camera also presents jazz. And just as Bach appeals to classical tastes, Bach has inspired some of the giants of jazz of this and past generations."
"Bach's Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, the first showcase piece he wrote for harpsichord — though it's important to note that it isn't early Bach — was a daring work in its kind," Rothenberg says. "Because of the instruments softness, it hadn't yet been put in a soloistic light."
For the continuo orchestra and for Mendelssohn's Octet in E-flat Major, Rothenberg gathers Da Camera artists past and present, including violinist Ken Goldsmith, who performed in the inaugural Da Camera concert, violist James Dunham and cellists Norman Fischer and Desmond Hoebig with emerging musicians currently in the Da Camera Young Artists program (Joanna Becker, Creston Herron, Derek Powell and David Connor) and alums (Sonja Harasim and Whitney Bullock) — many who refined their skills with violinist Vera Beths — alongside violinists Harumi Rhodes, Nicolas Kendall, violist Ivo-Jan Van Der Werff, Theresa Hanebury and Jim Vassallo on trumpet, trombonist Thomas Hulten and former Da Camera education director, cellist Evan Leslie.
"Mendelssohn revived Bach — whose music was largely forgotten after his death in 1750 — by producing the first St. Matthew's Passion in a concert setting in 1829," Rothenberg added. "His sister Fanny Mendelssohn (who was an accomplished pianist) performed many of Bach's works, including the D Minor Concerto."
Brahms learned much from Mendelssohn's music and discovered Bach through Mendelssohn's study. As such, Rothenberg has chosen a cadenza Brahms penned for her performance of Bach's Keyboard Concerto. Brahms' reaction to the concerto, written two centuries prior, travels from a conventional Baroque aesthetic to thicker textures typical of Romanticism. For the last concert of this season, Rothenberg will re-context Brahms' late piano compositions for In The Garden of Dreams, a staged production commingling text, images and music of turn-of-the-century Europe.
As for Mendelssohn's Octet, "there isn't a more celebratory piece in the world," Rothenberg says. "Like champagne and cake."
Cake? In keeping the festive tenor of the musical evening, champagne and desserts will follow at an after party at the Houston Ballet Center for Dance. Because there's no question that Jalbert loves and Bach and Mendelssohn loved cake.
Da Camera of Houston presents "Opening Night: 25th Anniversary Celebration" on Friday at 8 p.m. at Wortham Theater Center. Tickets start at $28 dollars and can be purchased online or by calling 713-524-5050. Admission to the after party at the Houston Ballet Center for Dance is $50.