Bachanalia Behind the local effort to celebrate the Brandenburg Concertos

J.S. Bach portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann | Illustration courtesy of JPL and NASA

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“[Bach is] arguably the best at a thing that anyone has ever been in the history of doing a thing.”
       — Jon Batiste, recent Golden Globe winner       

 

By Barbara Rose Shuler

In more than 30 years of covering the Carmel Bach Festival for print and broadcast media, I have met more than a few wildly devoted fans of the composer. While it’s an understandable notion that music of a composer born in 1685 in northern Germany might be boring and old-fashioned, one thing you learn on the J.S. Bach beat is that much of his music has a timeless universality that modern ears can appreciate.

Bachophilia struck Bob Danziger suddenly in his 20s and changed his life.  He was practicing tai chi on a French Polynesian dock at sunset in the late 1970s when a boat sailed by, playing the second Brandenburg concerto. Transfixed by the music, the young man jumped into the water and swam to the vessel to find out what he was hearing. After hearing the answer, this jazz/pop musician with no background in classical repertoire returned home, purchased a recording of the six Brandenburgs, and listened to them every night for over two years.  

He was so caught by the melodic lines and intricate interplay of instruments that he decided to recreate the music with modern settings of his own. This challenge proved daunting. 

He says, “Every time I picked up a new instrument, and I have tried a lot of instruments through the years, I would try to play some of the lines. Especially the trumpet lines from the second Brandenburg, because I really love those. But it never worked well.”

When an injury constricted his arm movements, his career as a performing musician came to an end. However, his passion for the Brandenburgs never waned.  

He and his wife settled in this region at the turn of the millennium. A man of many talents and abilities, Danziger was working on a soundscape project for the National Steinbeck Center when he discovered an instrument called an EWI (electronic wind instrument) that finally allowed him to recreate his beloved music.

“Falling in love with the English horn sound the EWI makes, I noticed I was playing a Brandenburg melody and decided to learn all the parts of the second Brandenburg Concerto. The parts started coming quickly. After a few months, I began rearranging them to merge some of my favorite counterpoint lines with the melody and bass lines.” 

He further rewrote movements of the concertos based on his intuitions about the composer and experimented with infusions of jazz, funk, rock, country, African, Indonesian, Brazilian and other genres from his musical life. Without training in classical music, Danziger devised his own techniques for rearranging the concertos. 

He estimates the project took 12,000 hours to complete and credits the guidance and knowledge of mentors and friends as vital to his undertaking. His Brandenburg arrangements were presented publicly at a gala event seven years ago. Knowing that the 300th anniversary of the Brandenburgs was approaching, Danziger called his opus “The Brandenburg 300 Project.”

Danziger is overseeing the production of a live-streaming tribute to the Brandenburgs to be beamed to the world from the Monterey Peninsula on March 24. The project commemorates the date of Bach’s gift of the folio of the concertos to Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg, in 1721.  

What music would be so enchanting that you would be willing to dive off a dock at dusk and swim to a stranger’s boat?

Ironically, the Margrave, who was the younger brother of King Frederick I of Prussia, lacked the resources to support an orchestra talented enough to play these complex pieces. As far as we know, he never heard them. They languished for over a century in pristine condition until they were discovered in a Prussian library in 1849 and released to the world.

Working alongside Danziger for the March 24 broadcasts — there will be two — are his co-producers Jeff Jones, chair and associate professor of music and performing arts at CSU Monterey Bay, and videographer Doug Mueller. Viewers will be treated to beautiful art from local museums and galleries, including images of paintings by California artists from the Crocker Museum as well as the Hardy, Trotter and Winfield Galleries. 

Among these will be photos of works by Monterey County artists David Ligare and Armin Hansen, and famed European and Chinese painters.  These visuals will complement a series of interviews, stories and performances of the concertos in classical and contemporary styles. 

The video’s delightfully eclectic range of music makers include Black Violin, Wynton Marsalis and the English Chamber Orchestra, Sones de Mexico Ensemble Chicago, Karl Richter & His Chamber Orchestra, Academy of Ancient Music, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, John Clayton, Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Classical Jazz Quartet with Kenny Barron, Ron Carter, Stefon Harris, and Lewis Nash.

An important element of the video is drawn from another significant event in Danziger’s life. After his music career ended, he earned a law degree, and accepted a position with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an environmental systems analyst. He had been at JPL for only a few days when he witnessed the transmission of the Voyager spacecraft’s first sounds and images of Jupiter — a stunning moment.

NASA’s two Voyager spacecrafts each carry a Golden Record representing images, sounds and music of earth. The contents were selected and recorded by a committee chaired by renowned astronomer Carl Sagan, who said, “The spacecraft will be encountered, and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space.” 

To his amazement, Danziger discovered the music section leads with the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. Viewers of the livestream will be asked to consider what music they would choose for a future Golden Record to represent humanity. They can share their ideas in a chat room during the broadcasts.

Danzinger has been dedicated to bringing together local organizations to form a part of the Brandenburg 300 Project. Lending their resources and expertise are CSUMB, Monterey Symphony, Monterey Jazz Festival, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, California Rodeo Salinas, Carmel Bach Festival, KAZU-FM, Monterey County Pops!, Palenke Arts, and the Alliance for California Traditional Arts; quite a disparate array of willing participants.

Bach’s music has been a significant part of Monterey County’s history, especially through the events of the Carmel Bach Festival, founded in 1935 by Carmel impresarios Dene Denny and Hazel Watrous.

Bach scholar David Gordon, who served as a member of the senior staff with the festival for 30 years, counted well over 250 performances of the Brandenburgs by this ensemble alone. Numerous other local music organizations and artists have performed the concertos over the decades. 

Danziger recently learned from a representative of the leading Bach archive in Europe that his online event from this region is the only known celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Brandenburgs. Furthermore, they requested a copy of his video for their archives, giving it a place in the preeminent history of significant Bach events. Danziger was over the moon at this news. “I can’t tell you how much that means to me.” 

Perhaps another way to ask the Golden Record question is, “What music would be so enchanting that you would be willing to dive off a dock at dusk and swim to a stranger’s boat?”

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The Brandenburg Links

For more information about performers, artists and sponsors and to register for the March 24 broadcast, go to BrandenburgConcerto300thAnniversary.com.

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Barbara Rose Shulter

About Barbara Rose Shulter

Barbara Rose Shuler is a writer and broadcaster best known for her coverage of the arts for various media in the region. For many years she was an FM radio personality producing and hosting classical music programs. She also hosted a public radio interview show for more than two decades featuring conversations with writers, artists, scientists and public figures on a wide range of subjects. She lives in Pacific Grove, California.