Imagine a spacecraft tearing from Earth at about 40,000 miles an hour. Thousands of years pass. An extra-terrestrial being from some distant galaxy happens upon this spacecraft, and finds a relic on board, a disc their superior intelligence registers as a vinyl record. After deciphering instructions for how to play an LP— much like decoding hieroglyphs on the wall of a cave— the creature drops the needle on side A.
They are greeted in 55 languages, and with various sounds of Earth: whale songs, a baby crying and waves breaking against the shore. Then comes the trumpet. The triumphant fanfare of Movement I from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 fills the ship. This alien can hear sounds, but it has not heard anything like this. How would they react to a first encounter with music, humanity’s greatest gift to itself?
This album, The Golden Record, exists. NASA sent it into space aboard Voyager 1 and 2 as a kind of time capsule. Light in the Attic recently reissued and beautifully packaged the compilation. With the Brandenburg excerpt, the first piece of music on The Golden Record, curators Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan make a statement. Here we are.
I approached the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s reading of all six of the Brandenburg Concertos on Saturday night at the Meyerson with this announcement in mind. British keyboardist Richard Egarr led the proceedings. “We have a lot of Bach for you tonight,” he said.
Egarr framed the Brandenburg Concertos for the audience as a sort of “failed job interview.” Bach polished up mostly older material and submitted it to Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, in 1721 in hopes of obtaining a position in Ludwig’s court. The job would’ve helped Bach alleviate the financial pressure of 20 children. Alas, it was not to be.
Ludwig glanced at the scores, and then left them in a file in his library, only to be sold 13 years later for the equivalent of $24. The concertos could have languished in obscurity forever, had they not been accidentally rediscovered in Brandenburg in 1849 and published the following year.
After a brief yet edifying introduction— Egarr generously gave them before each concerto as the stage crew set up for the next piece— the 28-person orchestra, large by baroque standards, launched into the first Brandenburg concerto.
Conducting from the harpsichord and with his back to the audience, Egarr sat on a sideways piano bench, astride it as if on a horse, rising and falling frequently with the contours of the music. He mostly used his left hand to navigate daring tempo and dynamic changes with the orchestra, and the right largely improvising on the harpsichord, creating chordal punctuation marks, or doubling the cello and bass lines.
The sixth concerto, in B-flat major, came next. Egarr introduced it with a story about three princes, represented by two violas and cello— instruments du jour at the time of these writings— who, upon returning from a hunt, encounter three cadavers. Two viola da gambas and a bass viol played those parts, as they were on their way out of fashion. And so the old and young instruments are brought to dance together.
The first movement is one to live for. With measures 27 and 28 comes a flash of magic. Bach has the violas take a very brief sojourn from a B-flat dominant chord into an E-flat dominant chord, only to be swiftly whisked back to end the phrase with a V-I cadence in B-flat major. It mirrors the first four bars of a blues progression, as if Bach had a long telescope with which he could glimpse music made popular by African-Americans after slavery in the southern United States 200 years later.
From this prescient moment the orchestra took us to Concerto No. 2. Unfortunately some of the sky-scraping trumpet solo lines seemed to be lost in space, notwithstanding principal trumpeter Ryan Anthony’s valiant effort to navigate what is considered some of the most difficult music in the instrument’s repertoire.
Egarr tuned his own harpsichord during intermission. This, along with the spoken intros, and constant shifting of personnel gave the concert a refreshingly informal, parlor-room chamber feel.
In the fifth concerto, the harpsichord was the star. Egarr turned it 90 degrees so the lid could direct its sound out to the audience. He now sat the traditional way on the bench and played the written keyboard part, dazzling us with the virtuosic cadenza in the first movement. His period-appropriate ornaments were a testament to his lifelong devotion to baroque music, as rococo as the ebony and gold spiraled legs of his harpsichord.
The third Brandenburg Concerto in G major is probably the most well-known, and its presentation in so many different contexts speaks volumes for its versatility. Wendy Carlos recorded it using only moog synthesizers for Switched-on Bach (Columbia, 1968). The celebrated flutist Hubert Laws recorded a jazz interpretation on his sadly forgotten classical/jazz crossover album Rite of Spring (CTI, 1971). It is also, by Egarr’s admission, the most joyous, happy-making, and nostalgic of the concertos. I still remember the first time my father played it for me as a kid.
It was a treat to watch the soloists toss the ubiquitous first-movement melody around like a hot potato, from the violins to the violas to the cellos and back again in a semicircle. The second movement consists of one bar, and although it was possibly meant for a harpsichord or violin cadenza, Egarr treats it as brief pause, a dot dot dot. Here Bach employs a deceptive cadence: there’s a B dominant chord, which one thinks will lead to the key of E minor, but instead we are returned safely to G major amidst an ecstatic flurry of scale-work in the third movement.
Finally we came to the fourth concerto. Instead of using period instruments for this concert, modern string setups and bows were employed, plus modern flutes in place of the recorders Bach called for. The DSO chose to use what co-concertmaster Nathan Olson calls “a modern approach that is historically-informed.” And in this concerto it was Olson’s heroic, breakneck 32nd-note scales up and down the violin fingerboard in the first, and the blistering double-stop tremolos in the third fugue movement that showcased pure virtuosity. The twin cascading flutes of David Buck and Kara Kirkendol Welch also helped lift this last concerto like the Voyager into the stratosphere.
This is “as rock ’n’ roll as baroque music gets,” Egarr observed. Indeed the DSO and its stellar soloists brought rock ’n’ roll, the improvisational spirit of jazz and blues, and a deep reverence for the baroque style to these almost 300-year-old pieces. Bach’s here we are became a reminder of other humans throughout history who, with music, have said the same.
Jesse Chandler studied music at The New School and plays keys and woodwinds with the band Mercury Rev and others.