It was a blend of the old and the new. The music was all Bach - Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello - performed in one sitting by Zuill Bailey.
To keep the program under three hours, he left out all the repeats - but who noticed? The house was packed - at least 300 or so in Alaska Pacific University's Grant Hall (a wonderfully intimate setting, perfect for this type of concert). I sat in the middle seat of the third row and was at eye-level with the cellist, and only 15 feet away. He came out on stage just as a final audience member was being slowly guided to her seat. Bailey adjusted his endpin a few times and sat patiently for a few moments as she navigated down the steep stairs in the semi-darkness. Realizing this was going to take longer than expected, he eased the tension with a joke (something to do with pianos and mine-shafts).
Then, when everyone was finally quiet, he dove into the First Suite's Prelude with passionate abandon, playing it much faster than I'd heard before. After a slight pause, he played the Allemande, and so on. He ended the Gigue with a flourish, then looked up and grinned as the audience roared its appreciation. For the most part, I suspect most of the audience really didn't know what to expect. Bach, of course; but beyond hearing that Prelude in a handful of TV commercials, it's likely that few if any in the audience had ever actually listened to these Suites as a set [although I and the other cellists in the group probably have at least four or five versions on our iPod playlists; one girl sitting a few seats down from me followed along in her own copy of the score].
But then, rather than just move on to the Second Suite, he relaxed and began to talk about the program and what it means to him. He recently released a recording on 2 CDs of the entire set, and has been playing them at performances across the state as part of the "Sitka Summer Music Festival's Autumn Concert Series". Bailey was recently named Director (in waiting) of this Festival, to replace its founder, Paul Rosenthal, in 2012.
Bailey explained how the Suites were organized - the Prelude and each of the dances; and he pointed out their differences. He explained that his cello, a Gofriller, was made when Bach was only 6 years old, and could have very likely been used to play the Suites (except for the Sixth) in the years after they were first introduced. He pointed out that in the years after they were composed, all the cellists knew these suites as etudes... Until Casals. Bailey commented that as a student, he himself learned them as "studies" and only heard them performed live once or twice. No one ever performed them as a full set. The first time he heard the entire set performed, it was presented by six different cellists.
Then he began the Prelude of the Second Suite, stopping after each movement to explain its nature and relation to rest. At the end of each suite, he returned to his personal narrative. As he was preparing to recording these suites for his CDs, he began to think of them in a different light. He realized these Suites symbolize the evolution of the cello itself: its growing influence in music; and how Bach brought the cello out of the closet - from its early use as a "church bass" to a full orchestral instrument in its own right.
A break followed the Fourth Suite, and then he began the Fifth Suite, explaining how Bach expected the A-string to be tuned down to G, although Bailey chose not to do so. Finally, before beginning the Sixth Suite, he explained that he also chose not to use a fifth string, contrary to what Bach apparently intended.
At the end, he returned to the stage to replay the Prelude to the First Suite, a bit slower, and more intensely; holding that last note - and the audience's collective breath - for several beats before lowering his bow, bowing his head and leaving the stage.
I've attended many concerts where the performers talk about the music, sometimes about the composer, sometimes about the historical setting, and sometimes about the nature of the music itself. This is usually low-key and brief. Bailey, however, did much more than that. Not only did he provide ample context for the Suites
themselves, he also personalized them in a way few performers ever do, allowing us a rare opportunity to get to know the performer as well as hear these complex pieces in a new way. I've not commented on his technique or any technical aspects of his performance. His sound was pure; his intonation accurate; the acoustics in the hall were excellent...
I look forward to seeing much more of him in his role with the Sitka Music Festival - each year they put on a Winter Music concert in Soldotna.... I have long been a fan of Bach and of the Six Suites; what cellist isn't? This was a wonderful concert, one I'll long remember.