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The Intricate Puzzles of Bach Add Up Nicely

Violinist-conductor Andrew Manze's insights into the composer's canons are a highlight of a strong program.


When the geniuses of the 18th century weren't busy creating our government and laying the foundations of modern science and calculus, they occupied themselves with magical puzzles.

In mathematics, these were complicated squares and circles whose rows and diagonals of figures added up to the same large number, or its multiple. Benjamin Franklin, believe it or not, was a virtuoso at this seemingly throwaway art.

In music, in the case of Bach, these puzzles consisted partly of various canons, or short, repeated passages that could be played forward or backward or upside down or right side up, at twice or half the speed, and still come out sounding like interesting, affective music.

Think of "Row, row, row your boat" to the max.

Violinist-conductor Andrew Manze made a discussion and demonstration of Bach canons an informative aspect of a scintillating six-part program by the Academy of Ancient Music on Sunday afternoon at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

With infectious humor and goodwill, Manze explained from the stage the technique of canon construction. Aided by his fellow academy musicians, he then deconstructed and reconstructed four of Bach's works in this medium.

These ranged from a relatively simple seven-part canon over a ground bass to a more complex work in which cellos, violas and violins each played a pair of different canons, inverted and right side up, all above a ground bass.

"So it's a bonanza," Manze said.

Manze noted that the single portrait of Bach surviving from his lifetime shows him holding a six-measure canon. Bach could have been holding one of his massive scores, such as the "St. Matthew Passion" or the B-Minor Mass, said Manze, but he chose this little six-measure canon to indicate its importance to him.

In fact, Manze added, the portrait is the only evidence for the existence of this particular canon, apart from its appearance in other Bach works.

But canons weren't just tricks to be solved. They were constructive techniques of larger works, such as the gorgeous Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041, which the academy also played.

Here, Manze proved sly and playful as well as a virtuoso soloist, spinning out sweet, silken, singing lines and using vibrato discretely as a means of expressivity. The academy musicians responded with alert and vigorous playing.

Once your ear had been tuned into the canon method, you could begin hearing canons elsewhere. Certainly they were in the touching and lyrical Concerto Armonico No. 5, formerly attributed to various composers but identified in 1979 as being composed by the obscure but obviously talented Count Unico Wilhelm Van Wassenaer.

Each half of the program contained one of Handel's 12 Concerti Grossi, Opus 6, (first No. 9 and later, No. 7). These works were played by the original 18th century Academy of Ancient Music and were performed here richly and inventively.

The program closed with a virtuosic performance of Geminiani's orchestration of Corelli's demanding theme-and-variation Violin Sonata, Opus 5, No. 12 ("La Follia"), with Manze in top form.

In addition to Manze, musicians distinguishing themselves included violinist Peter Lissauer, violist Trevor Jones, cellist Alison McGillivray, harpsichordist Alastair Ross and William Carter, who alternated nimbly between the theorbo and what from a distance looked like a five-course guitar.

There were two encores: a Sinfonia in G by Vivaldi and the closing Allegro moderato from Handel's Concerto Grosso No. 10 in D minor.

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