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Pianist Steven Beck explains enduring JS Bach fascination

for The Brooklyn Paper

In the more than three centuries since his birth, Johann Sebastian Bach has overcome extremely modest beginnings to stake a legitimate claim to being the most revered composer in music history.

His name seems to come up far more often than all others by musicians and other composers when they are discussing the all-time greats, and his music constantly shows up on recordings, on classical-radio stations and in concert halls, whatever the occasion.

Born in 1685 in Eisenach, Germany, into a noted musical family, Bach (his name means "brook" in German, and indeed, his life was filled with a continuous outpouring of music) was a church organist in several parishes and, later, the cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where he died of a heart attack in 1750.

In between, Bach wrote hundreds and hundreds of works in many genres, from solo cello suites to masses that are still listened to today and thought of as the highest form of musically expressive spirituality in all of Western civilization.

So why does Bach have this stranglehold over music lovers of all kinds? It’s especially ironic that his music went into hibernation almost immediately after his death and that the works of his less-talented sons were once held in higher esteem. In addition, Bach was discussed as, in his own time, the greatest organist who ever lived, but little was noted about his music.

Pianist Steven Beck, who plays Bach at Bargemusic on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, ventures an answer.

"There is a real timelessness about this music, and when Bach was composing, he was somewhat outside of his era," says the 25-year-old Virginia native in an exclusive interview with GO Brooklyn. "When we think of the baroque era in music we think of opera [usually Georg Friedrich Handel and Claudio Monteverdi], which Bach didn’t cultivate at all. He seems to stand outside the music of his time."

The timelessness that Beck is speaking of also serves as a partial explanation as to why Bach’s music has often been associated with the holiday season - with another irony that, even though Bach wrote hundreds of cantatas, oratorios and masses, and a lot of this music gets heard during Christmastime, it’s the secular compositions that usually receive the most play.

At Bargemusic, for example, Beck will play Bach’s solo keyboard work, the Goldberg Variations, on Christmas Eve, following that a week later by performing three of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and two other Bach concertos with several other musicians.

"A lot of his music is religious without being religious," Beck explains. "He has some overtly religious music, and then there’s music like the Goldberg Variations, which if not religious is certainly spiritual, and just the kind of the thing you’d want to hear on Christmas Eve in a concert hall. It provides you with a spiritual experience."

As for the New Year’s Eve program, Beck notes: "The Brandenburgs are lighter and more festive, and it sounds like caroling music with the trumpets playing. It’s a real holiday kind of sound."

As a pianist, Beck has an opinion on not playing these works on the harpsichord, which is probably the instrument for which they were written.

"That’s a subject of some contention," Beck admits. "We know he played the organ, harpsichord and clavichord. There’s some question about the piano, although we know he played the piano at the end of his life.

"The piano is what I play, and it’s certainly true that he may not have meant this music for the piano, but it’s also true that he may not have wanted it played in bigger halls and on modern instruments and published the way it is. There are a lot of ’what ifs’ involved with Bach and his music."

There are no ’what ifs’ about playing at Bargemusic, where Beck - who lives in Harlem - is a regular onstage presence.

"I started [playing there] a year and a half ago. I’ve played quite a few times, and I have several more concerts coming up this season," the pianist says.

"I did the Goldberg Variations last year on Christmas Eve, and it was a truly wonderful experience. It was completely sold out, which is nice to see," he continues. "For me, Brooklyn is great, and playing the barge is great - I love the informality but intense concentration of it. But the best reason is that, when you play there, it’s always only about the music, which I appreciate very much."

 

Pianist Steven Beck plays Bach’s Goldberg Variations on Dec. 24 at 7:30 pm and is joined by an ensemble on Dec. 31 at 7:30 pm for Bach’s "Brandenburg" Concertos 2, 4 and 5, Double Concerto for Violin and Oboe; and Triple Concerto for Flute, Violin, Keyboards and Orchestra at Bargemusic (Fulton Ferry Landing at the end of Old Fulton Street on the East River). Tickets are $60 for Christmas Eve and $125 for New Year’s Eve; for more information, visit www.bargemusic.org or call (718) 624-2083.

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