Last night’s Faculty Artist Series recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was given by violist Jodi Levitz. She prepared a program of half of the six solo cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach, situating BWV 1008 in D minor (the second of the set) between BWV 1009 in C major (the third) and BWV 1010 in E-flat major (the fourth). She began with some engaging introductory remarks to justify playing Bach cello music on viola, which explored issues such as the fact that the modern viola may be more consistent with the period cello than most other contemporary instruments and then throwing in current arguments over whether or not Bach actually composed the suite for good measure. Ultimately, however, her argument rested on the fact that Bach’s notes can be expressively performed on just about any instrument, a position that she shares with a wide number of major performers, past and present.
The heart of Levitz’ performance lay in her skill in teasing the diversity out of three pieces that are almost identical in structure. Each begins with a free-form prelude, followed by a series of dance movements. The sequences always begin the same way, allemande, courante, and sarabande, and it always concludes with a gigue. The only difference is in the dance form between the sarabande and the gigue, a pair of minuets in BWV 1008 and a pair of bourrées in the other two suites. For all that uniformity, however, Levitz endowed each suite with its own distinctive characters.
Fortunately, the prelude lays the groundwork for establishing that character; and that is where one could best appreciate the diversity in her work. BWV 1009 provided the perfect way to begin the evening with its prelude that unfolds elaborate harmonic progressions through the management of multiple voices in counterpoint emerging from arpeggiated passages alternating with stepwise motion through the diatonic scale. That unfolding takes place through a highly improvisatory rhetoric, based on what I continue to enjoy calling Bach’s “and another thing” technique, a discourse strategy through which he keeps postponing the final cadence by introducing new prolongations. I continue to believe that the only musician to match Bach in this device with similar inventiveness was John Coltrane, and there was definitely a jazzy side to Levitz’ approach to playing out those prolongations. Indeed, she added an extra layer of suspense through several strategically placed pauses, a significant (and highly effective) departure from those who think the goal of the prelude is to barrel through to that final cadence like some infernal machine.
Bach maintained that discourse strategy as effectively in his dance movements as in his preludes. As a result, Levitz could bring much of that same spirit of spontaneity to those dance movements. The major difference concerned her rhetoric of rhythm, since she always respected the fact that these were dance forms. As a result the mind’s eye could readily summon up images of bodies in motion, perhaps more likely to have been inspired by the choreography of George Balanchine than of any “period” practices, about which we know so little. She also made it a point to define those characteristics that identified each dance form while still establishing the individuality of each movement.
By recital standards, this was a relatively short evening, about ninety minutes, including the intermission. Nevertheless, there was so much to absorb from how Levitz approached each of these three suites that the entire evening felt like a major journey. It was the sort of performance in which the audience could leave with its own sense of accomplishment, even if that sense was far more modest than Levitz’ own. Most importantly, the evening concluded with the firm conviction that there is always something to be gained in going back to Bach.