Monday, March 6, 2017

Bach in Norristown

Steve Kramer performs J.S Bach's
Suite No.1 for Unaccompanied
Cello Sunday in Norristown.
Yes, it was everything I thought it would be. The gifted young cellist Steve Kramer played three of J.S. Bach's six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello -- Nos. 1, 3, and 6 -- Sunday afternoon at the Centre Theater in Norristown. It was the first of a series of chamber concerts planned for the first Sunday of each month, and the project couldn’t have gotten off to a more auspicious start.

Only about a dozen people turned out, but they were enthusiastic, and most were knowledgeable. The group included a music teacher, a family with a small daughter, and a young volunteer firefighter who said he was taking a course in classical music at Montgomery County Community College. I was flattered to speak to three people who said they learned about the concert from my preview article, which appeared on the front page of last Friday's Times Herald.

But enough about me. The music was thrilling. Steve seems to favor extreme tempi: The fast movements were very fast, and the slow movements, especially in the minor-key Suite No. 5, were lingered over, caressed. As you can see from the photo, I was sitting close enough to see the strings vibrate on the cello. In an intimate setting like this, the low growl of the instrument seems to flow through your bones.

In such an informal setting, ordinary concert protocols were dispensed with. There was no printed program, so Steve named each movement before he played it. The audience also applauded lightly between movements. The effect was a break in the continuity of the music, but that was easily forgotten during the actual playing.

Since the Suite No. 5 ends somberly, Steve sent everyone home with for a brisk encore -- "The Star-Spangled Banner," in honor of his adopted homeland, or perhaps Phillies spring training. It was the loveliest arrangement of that overly familiar tune that I can recall.

One personal note: During some extemporaneous remarks about his role at the Centre Theater Music School, Steve used the expression "don't paint the devil on the wall." He is only the second person in my life I have heard say that -- the first being my mother, who died in 1999. When I was a kid, she often said it as a way of warning not to invite bad luck by talking about it. I so taken aback when I heard again it again yesterday that I actually clapped my hands to my face. Steve is from Denmark, and my mother's mother's family was from what used to be known as the Sudetenland (the region Hitler and Chamberlain haggled over in Munich). I'm sure now that there's a linguistic connection. Mom never told me where she hear it first (or if she did, I have forgotten), but I'm sure now she must have picked it up her mother.

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