From my very first time playing Bach’s Concerto in A minor at the age of nine to the release of my album Bach’s Long Shadow this month, recorded in the darkest hours of a gruelling pandemic, Bach’s music has been ever-present throughout key moments of my life. Playing Bach in a masterclass for the late Vartan Manoogian in my home island of Mallorca was the first step on the journey towards becoming a concert violinist and eventually coming to study at Juilliard [one of the best music colleges and conservatoires in the world].
Bach’s music was also where I found solace during the most challenging times: When I injured my shoulder in a biking accident, the Allemande from Bach’s Violin Partita in D minor was the first piece I practised while starting my recovery. I also chose to perform Bach’s Concerto in A minor for my first performance after the injury.
More recently, as the pandemic ravaged our world and I realised I would not be able to share my music live with others, I turned to Bach’s Chaconne. Isolating myself in a remote cabin near California’s Yosemite National Park, I rediscovered the piece while also rediscovering why I am so fortunate to play music for a living. Even when the pandemic took all my concerts away, the universal beauty of Bach’s music kept me going.
Understanding the message that Bach conveys in his music is a lifelong journey. My approach to performing his works is constantly evolving, informed by my life experiences. To me, Bach’s music is the clearest representation of natural beauty created by man in the Western world. Each note functions as a drop of musical paint appearing in the space/time continuum; each drop a precise intersection across centuries between Bach’s quill, the performer’s hands and the listener’s ears.
What is the role of the performer in Bach’s music?
Maybe my search for the answer to this question goes back to the very beginning of my personal musical journey: What is more universal than the innocence and naivety of a 9-year old child? In Zen philosophy, the road to mindfulness is often compared to the state of mind that most children have. Performing at that age felt like painting on a blank canvas, allowing Bach to supply the drops of musical paint on my canvas. The stage was the place where I just let go and my self-judgement and inner dialogue floated away. This is an approach to performing that I still adhere to today.
Fast forward now to the winter of 2013: I am in a maze of small cubicles that form the practice rooms at the University of Southern California. To most people, those rooms are claustrophobic. But for me, my room was an oasis, where I could practise any time I wanted, explore the depths of my technique and understand the musical language of the great masters and the challenges that Midori, my teacher and mentor, brought up in every lesson.
It was in one of these rooms that I started questioning my whole approach to Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas. I had to change the way I listened to my own instrument and felt the rhythm in my whole body. Through each one of its movements, a constant wave of optimism draws its energy from Bach’s use of Baroque dance forms.
Playing Bach on period instruments
How did Bach actually hear his pieces? I had previously been using our standard modern setup, playing on steel strings, with a bow that is much heavier than its Baroque predecessor, and employing modern tuning. Through the years and since my time at USC, my exploration of Baroque sound deepened. I added open natural gut strings to my instrument, started using a Baroque bow and experimented with ornamentation. These modifications all became tools to get closer to what Bach’s music must have sounded like during his time.
How the solitude of lockdown helped musicians
The solitude that the COVID-19 pandemic brought to so many of us helped me in a surprising way. Being away from the stage, I was aching for human connection through music. This new reality forced me to focus on understanding Bach better as a human. He was a humble, hard-working musician that had an uncanny ability to put his ego aside when writing music. A connection emerged between my explorations of the Baroque sound and Bach as a person. I stripped my performances of his music down to what I believe to be the essential core. I tried to achieve a state of mind in which I am merely a medium for Bach’s musical definition of beauty to come through. I only add my own ideas to his music when, like with my ornaments, it is appropriate and complementary.
So here I am, humbly presenting to you a stripped-back snapshot of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, in which I let the notes speak for themselves.