Labor of love brings music to life

Music ranges from solo cello to choir and chamber orchestra

Posted: Thursday, September 12, 2002

Juneau musician Bruce Simonson has assembled a choir of two dozen singers and more than a dozen musicians to bring the music of Bach, Mendelssohn and Faure to the community. The two free concerts are a labor of love for Simonson, who is conducting as well as producing the performances.

Simonson said music serves as antidote and inspiration in difficult times and he hopes this music might provide some solace for those who may be sad or introspective around the anniversary of Sept. 11. He said it's also an opportunity to simply experience truly wonderful chamber music on its own terms.

Faure's Requiem is the centerpiece of the concert. At least a half-dozen well-known composers have set the Catholic requiem Mass, or funeral Mass, to music and Faure's is probably the most modern and least bombastic.

"Almost all of the 'fire and brimstone' portions of the traditional requiem Mass are omitted from Faure's version - it's a gentle piece, in my mind, written in large part for those who survive the departed," Simonson said. "It's a far subtler statement of peace and hope for the world, than can be provided by a direct reading of the Requiem Mass itself."

The Requiem features the entire ensemble. The soprano solo will be sung be 10-year-old Wendy Byrnes and the baritone solo will be sung by Bill Garry.

"Bruce has a lot of vision and works hard to get it authentic," said keyboardist Laurie Clough, who will play harpsichord in the Brandenburg concerto and organ in Faure's Requiem. "He could've cut corners but he didn't. It's more trouble and there's a lot more people involved."

Clough's daughter Wendy is featured as the soprano soloist in the Faure piece, a part that was written for a boy soprano. Clough said having a child sing the part instead of simply getting a woman in the choir to step out for the solo is one example of Simonson's standard. For the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto, Simonson tracked down a harpsichord as well, rather than substituting a more convenient keyboard. Clough has been practicing on the instrument at home for the past month.

"It's a neat-sounding instrument," Clough said. "It's attracted a lot of attention from my kids' friends - most people have never even seen one."

When Bach composed his six Brandenburg Concertos around the turn of the 1700s, the piano had not yet been invented. Unlike the piano, where mallets strike the strings, the strings are plucked in a harpsichord.

"The feel of a real harpsichord is different from a piano or organ, if you play it harder it's not louder," Clough said. "It's a delicate instrument. In this piece, the string players have all the difficult stuff. They have so much variety they can do with dynamics and expression."

Juneau Bach Society Concert with chamber orchestra and chorus

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15.

Where: Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

Tickets: Free, donations accepted at the door

placeholder tickets at Hearthside & Rainy Day Books.

Program: Faure's Requiem, with soprano Wendy Byrnes and baritone Bill Garry; Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 with violists Andrew Schirmer and Julia Bastuscheck; Bach's Cello Suite 2 in D minor with David Austin; Mendelssohn's variation of the "Dona nobis pacem," ("grant us peace in our time") featuring cellists David Austin and Jane Albrecht.

Simonson called the piece a tour de force for violists.

"It contains some of the finest melodic lines I am aware of in Bach's works," he said. "It's about solo violas, solo cellos. I really love the cello. It has a wonderful range, it can play quite high and the lows are rich and warm."

The cellos and violas are playing the parts that would typically be written for violins. Because the music was written to emphasize the higher notes on the cello and violas, it has an uncommon sound.

"It's going to be a treat - the highest voice in the piece is the middle voice of the string quartet. It changes the sonority of the piece," said violist Julia Bastuscheck. "The violas are not often showcased, so that's why this is so special for us."

Bastuscheck said Bach constructed beautiful, multi-layered harmonies throughout the piece.

"There's a lot going on all the time," she said. "At least six-part harmony, plus the bass line. It's phenomenal writing. The way he does the counterpoint is incredible."

Bach also wrote a collection of six suites for solo cello. David Austin will be featured as the lone cellist performing Bach's Second Cello Suite, in D minor. Austin, who earned his master of music arts degree at Yale University in 1970, is an accomplished musician who lives with his family at the Mount Bether Bible Center, a small religious community near Hoonah. He has taught cello and played with the Juneau Symphony for many years. He'll join violists Andrew Schirmer and Julia Bastuscheck as the featured soloists for the Brandenburg Concerto.

Austin said Bach had a gift for composing for the cello, and this piece in particular lays well on the instrument. It's very cellistic, he said.

"D minor is a good key on the cello," he said. "It's a very sober piece, very serious. He must have been in a very cerebral mood when he wrote this."

The concert also will include a short work by Mendelssohn, featuring Austin and Juneau cellist Jane Albrecht, as well as the chamber orchestra and chorus. The piece is a German setting of "Dona nobis pacem," which means "Grant us peace in our time."

Riley Woodford can be reached at

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