Dallas — Dallas Bach Society’s house concerts, with performances on Fridays in Flower Mound and Saturdays in Dallas, are some of the most enjoyable experiences Metroplex classical music lovers can have. The Flower Mound concerts host about 50 audience members in a sumptuous home, and delicious appetizers, desserts, and an open bar are included in the ticket price. It’s also an opportunity for concertgoers to meet like-minded others during the pre-concert cocktail hour and at intermission.
This Friday, the music was even more exceptional than the food and atmosphere. Cellist Eric Smith performed the first of a two concert series exploring the six cello suites of J.S. Bach. This weekend’s program is suites 1, 3, and 5; he’ll perform the even-numbered suites in March. Smith has, in the past several years, become a mainstay of the area early music scene, and for good reason.
As evidenced by Smith’s performance Friday evening, his interpretation of Baroque repertoire is nuanced, thoughtful, and technically sound. In his remarks, he characterized the first suite as peaceful, the third as joyous, and the fifth as melancholic. His performance readily evoked those three moods.
Since Pablo Casals’ resurrection of the nearly forgotten suites in the 1930s, they have become staples of the cello repertoire, and have been transcribed for many other instruments, from viola to marimba. The suites are dance music, featuring the courtly dances of the 18th century: the allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue make their appearances in each suite, while two each feature the minuet, the bourée, and the gavotte. Hearing them performed on a German cello from the 1750s, with gut strings and a Baroque-style bow, is the closest we can likely get to how the music would have sounded in Bach’s time.
Smith, too, is an expert interpreter of Bach. These suites are played in radically different ways by different cellists: listen to a few recordings of the Prelude from Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007, for example, and you’ll soon hear that tempos vary enormously from one performer to another. Some prefer a contemplative approach, others zip through the music in half the time. Smith chose a point just speedier than average, quick enough to keep the listener engaged, but slow enough to create that peaceful atmosphere he was going for.
Although the first and third suites are performed frequently, the fifth is played much less often, largely due to the scordatura tuning that Bach employs. In scordatura, a string is tuned up or down to a different pitch than usual. In the case of Bach’s fifth cello suite, the highest string, the A, is tuned down to a G. This creates formidable challenges: suddenly, the notes on the highest string are in different places. Smith negotiated these challenges ably, not just performing this music as a merely Baroque oddity of tuning, but as something much stranger: a mournful, yearning dance suite.
This was an outstanding evening of music.