Saturday, January 10, 2015

Maley Envisions Bach's Goldberg Variations

Despite the frigid temperatures Friday night, music and art lovers packed themselves into the main gallery of Side Street Studio Arts, which is quickly becoming the primary downtown Elgin venue for chamber music performance.

They came to hear J.S. Bach's 32-part Goldberg Variations (c. 1740) performed by artist-in-residence Rachel Elizabeth Maley, in conjunction with an exhibit of her visual art that was inspired by the music.

Groupings of four small, float-framed paintings echoed the orderly mathematical subdivision of the music. Each element was related in scale, tone and color, but fully developed and individually recognizable after a thoughtful observation.

On an opposite wall, an unframed drawing emphasized unity over individuality, composed of proportionate geometric forms decorated by the counterpoint of a wandering line. The effect was Bach-like: more about the harmony of a structure than the melody of a story.

Pairing abstractions with the human touch of pencil is always beautiful, and the suggestion of architectural sketches of stained glass designs was not lost on those of us from the Prairie.

The concert opened with Wichita Vortex Sutra (1988) by Philip Glass, a piano piece composed to accompany the reading of Allen Ginsberg's 1966 anti-war poem of the same name. Wearing fingerless gloves, Maley's fine rendition of the piece reminded us of the repetitive rhythmic and tonal structures that serve as Glass's characteristic compositional material. 

Some musical detail was acoustically blurred for listeners seated in the back of the room, an unusual placement made necessary by the sheer size of the audience. Some might suggest the Glass could have fared better here with the soft pedal down.

Legend has it that Bach wrote the Variations as an exercise for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a young harpsichordist who traveled with an ambassador prone to insomnia. The suite was supposedly used as a repertoire of soothing diversions for sleepless nights.

Reading the score from a digital tablet, Maley worked her way through the nearly eighty minutes of continuous music, subtly differentiating each piece with tempo and affect, and deftly negotiating difficult crossing passages that were originally played on an instrument with two separate keyboards.

The dim light and salon-like atmosphere effectively recreated variations of the scene from 275 years ago, as some listeners experienced closed-eye serenity, while others anxiously counted the passing minutes.

This well-conceived program was a highly successful culmination of creative efforts by Maley, and another milestone for Side Street, whose tireless support of local artists is helping transform downtown culture.

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