The oddest of music’s many odd couples was J.S Bach and his patron, Frederick the Great, who surrounded himself with top drawer intellectual talent.
“Old Fritz,” as his adoring people called the Prussian warrior king, fashioned himself as a courtly philosopher in the French mold, preferring to speak French to German and feeling emboldened enough to write a treatise trashing Machiavelli’s reputation. To show off his musical sophistication – and he really wasn’t such a duffer at all – Frederick challenged Bach to compose a little something based on a theme he’d concocted. Or so Frederick said.
Some historians believe that The Musical Offering – an awkward, 21-note-long phrase – came in fact from C.P.E Bach, Bach’s second son who was by then the cocktail pianist at the Prussian court in Potsdam and who was desperate to show his old school papa what modern music should sound like.
Either way Freddy’s Tune, the flippant-sounding title of Soundstreams’ Saturday musical offering at Toronto’s Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre with the Gryphon Trio, gets the spirit of the 271-year-old adventure just about right - serious ideas conducive to spirited and unconventional performance.
Here was the aging Bach – the deeply religious father of 20 children from two marriages – exchanging musical puzzles and pleasantries with Frederick, the openly gay autocrat who loathed the backwardness of Bach’s religious beliefs (and hence Bach himself) and whose elegant party-palace was called Sanssouci, or “carefree.” (Can you also detect the spirit of Queen’s Freddie Mercury somewhere in the show’s title?)
Rethinking The Musical Offering is not in itself a new idea. The Modern Jazz Quartet, among other jazz ensembles, did its revisionist best with the piece years ago. Back in 1985, the New Music Concerts presented Toronto pianist Reginald Godden exploring the mind-bending intricacies of Bach’s complex canon-writing to a full house at Premier Dance Theatre.
Musicians in general are prone to adapt new technology. Beethoven was so taken with Johann Nepomuk Maelzel’s new invention, the metronome, that the composer himself came up with a marketing plan to help sell the thing. It was Frederick’s collection of newfangled “forte-pianos” that lured Bach senior to the royal court in the first place. It’s The Altered Offering, the barrier-bending turntable work from Cheldon Paterson (aka SlowPitchSound), riffing on The Musical Offering, that might be incentive enough to draw an audience to the Soundstreams’ event.
“People have been predicting the death of classical music for some time,” says Soundstreams’ artistic director, Lawrence Cherney. “In truth, that hasn’t happened. In fact, we have access to a lot more music than we ever did, even if we’re coming from the classical side of things as we do.”
SlowPitchSound’s turntable does more than create a club vibe. Check him out on the web where you may come across an earlier tune, Dream Time in Cryosleep, from his Emoralis EP. Far from being an exercise in turntable wizardry, Dream Time is as deeply felt and lyrical as any Romantic-era nocturne; The Altered Offering is proportionally more complex, demanding and enthralling. The 41-year-old Granada-born Toronto musician riffs in real time on the note-written transcriptions – as played by the Gryphon Trio – taken from his own turntable Bach samplings made earlier.
The result is a genuine addition to the chamber music repertoire. Rather than reinvent Bach’s original, SlowPitchSound’s adaptation creates a means for the piece to reinvent itself with his help – or so it seemed to me as I observed a recent rehearsal.
“I slow things down,” Paterson told me during a break. “It’s then you begin to hear things you’d never hear in normal time. Yes, I’m picking out a particular sound but I’m getting at something that is inside that sound. I’m pulling it out. All of a sudden it’s transformed into a new thing.”
SlowPitchSound’s hip-hop background is “a foundational element to what he does” reminds David Dacks, artistic director of The Music Gallery, who has worked with Paterson in the past. “But his listening skills and ability to respond to challenges combined with outstanding instrument technique make him a very special musician.”
That said, the entire concert doesn’t exactly slack off when he’s not front and centre. The other elements, including bassist Roberto Occhipinti’s work (Tuareg), conductor/trombonist Scott Good’s arrangement of John Adams’ Phrygian Gates, and The Stutterer, a funk jazz-and-turnable piece by Dafnis Prieto, the Cuban-born Toronto/New York percussionist, all stand out. (So does the news that Back to the Sunset, Prieto’s new big band recording, was recently lauded by Downbeat magazine as “one of the best albums of the year.”)
The fact of concert life is that a turntable-ist sampling of Bach represented a less radical idea than J. S. Bach trying out one of Old Fritz’s new pianos in 1747. (Bach found the keyboard action too tough.)
Then, a new instrument was considered radical. Now it’s the new norm because classical music needs it to be.
Freddy’s Tune is performed at 8 p.m. on April 21 at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre in Toronto (soundstreams.ca).