UPDATE: The Saturday performance of Bailey and Bach is now sold out, but a second show has been added as of Thursday morning. The second show will be at 4 p.m. Sunday at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church downtown.
Considered separately, Zuill Bailey and Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello have rather intimidating reputations. Bailey, well known to many in Southeast as the new artistic director of the Sitka Summer Music Festival, is widely considered one of the world’s most accomplished cellists. And Bach’s six cello suites, considered to be the quintessential music for that instrument, are among the most famous classical works ever written.
Taken together, however, the intimidating nature of these big names gives way to something much more accessible: one man’s understanding of another man’s art, expressed so that others can share it. The bond between this performer and this music, like the suites themselves, gets deeper and more interesting the further one goes in exploring it, pointing toward a better understanding of both.
To hear Bailey talk about Bach’s cello suites is to hear him describe how his in-depth familiarity with the pieces is matched with a joyful acknowledgement of their mystery. He knows them, perhaps, as only a small group of musicians on the planet knows them, and yet he is the first to admit that his exploration is ongoing: His understanding changes as he changes. In this way, he says, this music is unlike any other he knows.
“They are very private pieces and they’re also very difficult because there is no correct way of playing them,” Bailey said earlier this week from Sitka. “So you feel like you’re always climbing Mount Olympus but never really getting to the top.”
Juneau will get to hear Bailey perform all six of the Bach cello suites this Saturday at the University of Alaska Southeast Egan Library. The event, a fundraiser for the Juneau Jazz and Classics festival, begins at 7:30 p.m. A second show, added after Saturday's show sold out, has been scheduled for 4 p.m. Sunday at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.
It would be no exaggeration to say that Bailey has been preparing this music over the course of his entire life – not just in terms of his knowledge of the music itself, an experience which extends back decades, but in terms of his intuitive understanding of it as he’s gotten older.
“This music kind of exposes what’s inside of us on any given day,” Bailey said. “When I was 19, a very great musician came up to me and had a long talk with me on my prowess on the instrument, (and he told me) what I lacked at 19 ... was pain and suffering in my music. And he said, ‘You can’t get that, you can’t manufacture that, you have to live that. You have to have a good and bad relationship, you have to have life and death in your life, you have to have scorn and love. You have to have everything all of over the place so that when you play this music, you inherently feel it in your bones and in your heart. And I’m at that crazily beautiful age where I’m still in control of my technique and yet I’ve experienced so much at the age I am that I’m able to vent that out with great freedom.”
Bailey said he did not form an immediate connection to the suites as a young man, though he had been playing the cello since the age of four and was of course aware of their reputation, which he calls “daunting.”
“I didn’t even try to understand what this was all about -- nor did I understand what this was all about,” Bailey said. “It took until I got out of school, with a masters degree from Juilliard, and I was finally without a guide a mentor a teacher, and the only pieces that I felt kept asking me the questions that I needed to ask, both as a person and as a musician, to guide me in this next chapter of my life were the Bach cello suites. Every day I was bewildered by them.”
Bailey learned the works over the next 10 years, an experience he said was not unlike therapy. Still, even after he mastered the pieces, he played them only in private.
“It took another half decade of application to feel free in my decisions to be able to play them in public.”
Since then Bailey has become known for this music, releasing a CD of all six suites in 2010, which climbed to the No. 1 spot on the classical Billboard charts. When he performs the suites, he plays them all the way through in one sitting, an unusual way to perform them and one which takes more than two hours.
“The reason I do all six in one sitting is because I think there’s actually something that chemically happens to us when we slide into the deep end of the pool in the world of Bach. There’s something that becomes very clear and crystalline about our dreams and our thoughts and our perspective on life after hearing Bach for a prolonged period of time.”
When asked what he might be thinking about while he’s playing over the course of the two hours, Bailey said he concentrates on remaining in the moment.
“They are so daunting that I’m thinking about the fact that I’m literally walking a very spiritual journey one step at a time. I keep reminding myself not to get ahead of myself in thought, and also in a physicality. It’s just being aware of the present. You’re actually intently interested in your own tour that you’re giving of a spectacular experience. What I have prepared to do in my practice for this is be able to let go and be free of analytical thought while I’m playing.”
“And all of the sudden 30 minutes has passed and you find yourself in a very magical place and then you look out at the audience and everyone feels they are in that same place.”
Bailey also said playing the suites in order, from one to six, can give insights to the listener about Bach’s evolution as a composer. The suites can be seen as the composer’s exploration of that instrument, Bailey said, though there is no evidence to suggest that Bach played the cello himself. His suites were the first solo music ever written for cello.
“We see the cello as it is now, but this was literally -- and I joke about it -- taking a piece of furniture, walking into the living room and taking a side table, and writing the greatest music for it.”
“Long story short, Bach kind of became the beginning and the end. Not only did he perfect the craft of doing it, but no one has been able to do it like it since.”
One of fascinations of the suites for musicians is that there is no right way to play them, Bailey said. There is no known manuscript in Bach’s hand, but there is one written by Anna Magdelena, Bach’s second wife, that is as close to the original as one can get. Still, the manuscript has many errors, Bailey said, and there are no indications as to important aspects of performance, such as tempo.
“It’d be essentially like being given a recipe of ingredients but not knowing how much to put of each in,” he said. “They can be interpreted a million different ways, which is what makes cellists continue to explore them.”
The suites were originally considered rather obscure etudes, or studies, not fit for performance. But in 1879, cellist Pablo Casals came across the score in a music shop in Barcelona. Though he was only 13, he knew he’d found something wonderful. He spent the next 12 years playing the suites every day, finally performing them for the first time when he was 25. And it wasn’t until he was 48 that he agreed to record them, becoming the first to do so. Since then the suites have become enormously popular.
Each of the six suites is divided into six movements, a prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, galenteries (minuets, bourees and gavottes) and gigue. The mood varies greatly from suite to suite; some are dark and brooding, written in a minor key, and others are much more optimistic, like Suite No. 1, the most famous of the six.
Bailey said his interpretation of the suites is “a puristic modern approach,” one that balances a respect for the way the music would have been understood at the time of its composition with an acknowledgment of the more modern evolutions the instrument has undergone in the meantime, such as a modern bow, modern strings and a longer finger board.
In performance he wants to avoid drawing attention to technique.
“Anything that is magical, you don’t notice why it’s magical, it’s so easy. So the job of the performer of these suites is to make decisions that don’t draw attention to how it’s done, but just simply make people stand in wonderment at what is coming at them and why it somehow feels like it changes them as they’re listening to it.”
Another important aspect of the relationship between Bailey and this music is the fact that he plays a cello that is actually from Bach’s time period. Built when Bach was 8, his cello was crafted by Matteo Gofriller in 1693. Its previous owner was famous chamber musician Mischa Schneider of the Budapest String Quartet, who died in 1985. Bailey came across it by chance in a violin shop in NYC and knew immediately he’d found his musical partner. He'd long imagined finding a cello that could sound that good.
“One day I walked into a violin shop and they showed me this cello and I picked it up with reluctance because I’d already played a thousand other instruments over the past five years, and the moment I played it my head kind of went sideways and my eyebrows went up and I thought, ‘Oh my God, does it truly exist?’ I asked to borrow it for the weekend and I never took it back. And that was 15 years ago.”
Bailey has been coming to Alaska to perform since 2007, when he was asked to join the Sitka Summer Music festival by then-director Paul Rosenthal. As the two men got to know each other over the next five years, they found that many of their opinions about music and how to share it with people were parallel. Bailey is also the artistic director and founder of a music festival called El Paso Pro Musica in El Paso, Texas, where he lives with his family and teaches at the University of Texas at El Paso. When the time came for Rosenthal to retire, he called Bailey and, as of last year, Bailey took the reins.
Bailey said organizing the Sitka and El Paso music festivals is enormously enjoyable.
“I think about this stuff 24-7. I love the way music affects people -- musicians, audiences, younger people older people -- and I would have it no other way,” he said.
In a recent NPR interview, Bailey was asked to explain his Alaska connection.
“(He said) ‘You know, you travel the world, you’re in Boston, LA New York, ... why in the world would you go to Alaska?’ And my response was ‘You clearly have never been to Alaska before, have you?’ And there were crickets on the other side of the phone...” Bailey laughed. “I said ‘You have to see Alaska, and the people and communities and the support and the love of life to understand any part of it. And anybody who comes to Alaska feels that within an hour.
“And I say that because I’ve invited already so many of my colleagues here over the years and each of them literally begs me to come back.”
As for Bailey, he plans to keep coming back for a long time to come; his commitment to the Sitka festival and Alaskan audiences is one he considers a lifetime project.
Tickets to Bailey’s performance of the Bach cello suites are limited, and are $50 for general seating or $25 for students. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.jazzandclassics.org.
For more on Zuill Bailey, visit www.zuillbailey.com.