Thursday, September 1, 2016

Six suites in Greencastle: Visiting cellist performs all of solo Bach for his instrument

Dale Henderson in a pop-up appearance at DePauw's administration building
Shutting out the outside world when listening to J.S. Bach at his finest isn't difficult. When the music is played with the focus, insight, and intensity that Dale Henderson brought to the six suites for unaccompanied cello Wednesday night in Greencastle, it can amount to a three-hour spirit-lifting respite (counting two intermissions) from the affairs of the day.

True, I was amused as he launched into the Prelude of Suite No. 1 in G major to recall something the adept musical parodist Peter Schickele did with this music: use it as introduction and accompaniment to a snatch of the old pop song "Brazil." I was hearing this on the same day that country's president was ousted after a prolonged parliamentary struggle: a meaningless coincidence, but one worth savoring for a few moments.

From then on, it was all about the music.
Henderson knows plenty about how to get the general public's attention with extraordinary Bach. At Music on the Square, the DePauw University School of Music arranged for him to display this knack expansively.

He is the founder of "Bach in the Subways," a project started in 2010 whose growth he has shepherded ever since, with performances keyed to the composer's birthday (March 21) here and abroad. DePauw cello professor Eric Edberg, who introduced Henderson to a capacity audience Wednesday, took part in the project several years ago during a sabbatical in New York City.

New York cellist has a mission to spread Bach around.
Henderson played the suites in order, with intermissions after the first three and before the last one. His artistry can be summarized as technically proficient to start with, with the crucial ingredient of well-executed ideas applied consistently and with love to the works' immense variety of texture and expression. In remarks to the audience, he offered a few light nudges on how to listen, explaining what the suites mean to him, individually and collectively.

He associates the first suite in G major with childhood, for example, and the third (in C major) with adulthood. Sure enough, his Suite No. 1 displayed youthful verve and, in the Sarabande, a certain apt dreaminess. The Allemande had the spontaneity of kids' dialogue. Even where I felt he went astray — the repeat of the first minuet seemed too impetuous — Henderson remained true to his theme.

In that Sarabande, by the way, we got the initial chance to admire his trills, steady and pretty. He put them to work in the concluding measures of the Prelude to Suite No. 2 in D minor, where the score has five full-measure chords. Cellists handle these differently, with necessary arpeggiation — if I may offer this review's only comparisons (from my record collection) here. Yo-Yo Ma plays them straight; Janos Starker decorates the three middle chords with short sequences in tempo that suit the harmony of each, playing the first and fifth come scritto.

It's not surprising that good cellists interpret the suites according to their temperaments and their strengths. Thus, Henderson sealed the Prelude with wonderful trills (though that choice strikes me as unidiomatic). Looking at the whole D minor Prelude, the option suited a personal, expressive performance with a reasonably wide dynamic spectrum. Ma goes wider, showing  off his exquisite pianissimo; Starker works within a more restricted range, emphasizing his  interpretive probity with logically applied agogic accents.

But away with comparisons! That could go on forever. Back to the kinship Henderson discovered between the first and third suites. Recall that he views the C  major as the adult in the room. And sure enough, you could hear in his performance the Prelude of the third suite telling its counterpart in the first:   "Things are more complicated than you think.  You'll understand when you're older."

The Allemande's intricate character heralded the characteristically fleet Courante. This was grown-up stuff, all right. The fashionable paired dances Bach used for his fifth movements switch from minuets to bourrees here. The balance Henderson gave to this movement in the third suite — the reflective second Bourree nicely contrasted with the first, whose repetition stayed close to the initial version — displayed the equanimity we adults like to think is normal for us. (We saw that eye-roll, kids!)

The way he played chords was also balanced: They were smoothly rolled, with rich sonority given to each note. In the Sarabande of the E-flat major suite (No. 4), we were treated to more of those marvelous trills. Before playing it, Henderson offered a verbal label he immediately rejected: "cerebral." I heard that in what followed, despite the cellist's clear dislike of the label ("a malicious lie," he said).

Henderson's way of smoothing and reconciling the register leaps in the Allemande had a philosophical tinge, like one of those disquisitions 18th-century philosophers liked to present in the form of lofty dialogues. The concluding Gigue, though this detracted only slightly, had the only suspect intonation of the recital. There was a whistle or two in the Gavotte movement of the magisterial D major suite. All those high positions — required because the original was written for an instrument with a fifth upper string — were firmly placed.

The sixth suite was where Henderson declared himself particularly to be in his element. "My favorite....the symbol of all the suites," he called the D major before performing it for a severely dwindled crowd. Multiple retunings between movements were slightly off-putting, but of course one would rather have a performer scrupulous about such matters than one indifferent to them.

The note of triumph Henderson was at pains to emphasize as a particular distinction of Suite No. 6 came through magnificently. The Allemande was heavenly, which sounds like matronly praise, but I mean it: It was almost prayerful. The tuneful pair of gavottes couldn't have been more delightful; the "musette" passage in the second suggested innocent country pleasures.

And by the time the Gigue had put the cap on the recital, it's likely everyone who had stuck around knew we had been hearing advocacy of the highest order, with a clear design and mastery evident throughout. Oh, and as for what love had to do with it — everything.