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Going for the Goldbergs

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company choreographs treasured Bach Variations at Bard this Sunday & Monday

by Frances Marion Platt
April 14, 2011 12:54 PM | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Photo by Janos Sutjak.
Photo by Janos Sutjak.
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The Goldberg Variations are widely regarded as ranking high among the crown jewels of Johann Sebastian Bach’s formidable output. And they may have been the most highly remunerative for the composer: It is said that they were commissioned by Count Kaiserling, a Russian ambassador to the court of Saxony, who suffered from terrible insomnia and wanted one of his retainers, a young keyboard student named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, to have some lively clavier pieces handy to play to cheer him up in the dead of night. The count reportedly presented Bach with a golden goblet filled with 100 gold coins as payment for composing this sublime sequence of an aria with 30 variations. According to Johann Forkel’s 1802 biography of Bach, “Even had the gift been a thousand times larger, their artistic value would not yet have been paid for.”

This story may be the Baroque equivalent of an urban legend, as Bach’s pupil Goldberg would have been only 14 years old in 1741, when the Variations were first published. But whether it’s literally true or not, the Russian count wasn’t the only person to assign great value to this masterpiece of Bach’s. The famed Canadian pianist Glenn Gould saw fit to record the entire sequence twice, and both times brilliantly: once early in his career, in 1955, and a second time shortly before his death in 1982.

But how would these pieces, so closely associated with keyboard instruments in the public mind, work on violin, viola and cello? Azerbaijani violinist and conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky has transcribed the Goldberg Variations for string trio to great acclaim. And the world-class Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company has taken the adaptation a step further, creating original choreography to Sitkovetsky’s transcription. The resulting work will be performed this Sunday and Monday, April 17 and 18 at the Sosnoff Theater of the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on the Bard College campus in Annandale.

In an unconventional staging to create a warm, inclusive setting, performers and audience members will be side-by-side onstage, removing the traditional divisions of artist and audience. The dancers, choreographers and musicians represent a creative fusion of five Bard departments, including members of the Jones/Zane company on faculty in partnership with the Bard Dance Program, as well as students and faculty of Bard’s programs in Dance and Music, the Bard Conservatory of Music and the Conservatory’s Artist/Fellow Program. Dancers will include Leah Cox, Stuart Singer, Liza Batkin (Class of ’14), Emily Mayer (Class of ’12), Kalena Fuji (Class of ’14) and Stephanie Saywell (Class of ’14). The musicians will include Helena Baillie on violin, Marka Gustavsson on viola and Emma Schmiedecke on cello.

The full program will be titled “A Closer Paradigm: Bach among Us.” The dance piece will be preceded by a short musical prologue of works by Hanns Eisler and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, plus two of Bach’s irrepressibly danceable Inventions as performed by students from the Bard Dance Program. Best of all, the program is free and open to the public; no tickets or reservations are required. Performances begin at 5 p.m. this Sunday and at 8 p.m. on Monday. For more information, phone (845) 758-7196 or visit www.bard.edu/conservatory/events.

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