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An amazing thing happened as guitar virtuoso Kazuhito Yamashita was playing a particularly sublime passage of the “Sarabande” from J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco on October 10, as part of the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts’ 2015-2016 guitar series.
First, some context. This afternoon concert was the first of two that Yamashita would play at St. Mark’s on what was a history-making Saturday for classical-guitar in America—Yamashita’s 2:30 and 7:30 concerts marked the first time a major international guitarist had performed all six Cello Suites in a single day (three in the afternoon, three in the evening) in this country. During his more than four-decade career, Yamashita has demonstrated he can play any style from any era—indeed, he is justly famous for premiering new pieces, as well as for recording the complete works of Fernando Sor, for example—and he has long been celebrated for his remarkable affinity to Bach. In the early ’90s he recorded the Cello Suites (alas, now out of print), and he has also transcribed and recorded Bach’s six sonatas and partitas for violin (and once played them over two consecutive concerts in Tokyo).
As light streamed through the stained glass windows of the gorgeous old church, and the vaulted and arched sky-blue ceiling positively glowed, Yamashita sat on a stool at the foot of the altar and dove into the oft-performed “Prelude” for Cello Suite No. 1, the notes ringing brightly all the way back to the organ pipes in the rear of the small, horseshoe-shaped balcony. Each of the suites contains six short movements: A prelude, followed by five dance pieces, performed in the same order—allemande, courante, sarabande, galanteries (in the six Cello Suites, paired minuets in Nos. 1 and 2, bourées in 3 and 4, and gavottes in 5 and 6), and a concluding gigue. Each of the full suites requires a masterful command of such varying moods, textures, and tempi, and though there is that structural similarity one to the next, each has its own distinctive character, flow, and technical demands. Yamashita immediately established that he was up to the task at hand, negotiating the jauntiest Baroque dance passages with unwavering rhythmic confidence, and digging deep into the sarabandes to extract the full range of emotions each offered.
So, there we were in the middle of Cello Suite No. 2, in the aforementioned sarabande—the notes sounded golden—and all of a sudden there was a distant rumble from somewhere outside the church. It quickly got louder and louder, the church itself seemed to vibrate with the rumbling, until the sound morphed into a mighty jet plane roar that filled the church, streaked the width of the building in a split-second, and then faded away as quickly as it had appeared. It was the unmistakable cacophony of the Blue Angels, a squadron of fighter jets that perform aerial stunts in close formation for various U.S. events—in this case, the annual Navy Fleet Week celebration on San Francisco Bay. It’s quite a spectacle, and an extremely loud one, as the planes fly low at high speeds over many parts of the city.
To his credit (and the crowd’s astonishment) Yamashita didn’t flinch one bit. And it probably happened five times over the course of the piece. In the audience, we sort of girded ourselves for each deafening flyover, maybe locked into the music even more closely, and on the other side of each eruption, the music somehow felt even more transcendently pure and beautiful. It was Bach vs. the Blue Angels—an apex of human cultural achievement vs. machines of war—and Bach won, handily. Perhaps that’s a tad dramatic, but it was easy to appreciate the striking contrast. And yes, when the intermission for the afternoon concert came at the end of that second suite, most of the audience went outside the front doors of the church and marveled at the jaw-dropping maneuvers of the Blue Angels in the cloudless azure sky above.
With the distractions now behind us, sanctuary restored, we could once again focus completely on Bach’s brilliance and Yamashita’s spellbinding interpretations. One consistent element of his style that really struck me was the way he creatively employed his right plucking fingers, constantly moving them down toward the bridge (sul ponticello) to elicit a brighter, more metallic tone (I kept hearing “harpsichord”), or up to the sound hole to warm things up with more bass resonance, and even onto the neck (sul tasto) for another timbre. He did it so deftly that short phrases sometimes “answered” each other as different instruments would; he was like a Baroque chamber group in a single guitar.
Frankly, I’d wondered whether hearing all six cello suites in a day might be too much of good thing—or too much of a similar thing. But at the end of the afternoon session, I felt hungry for more. For the first time I’d really grasped the scope of the pieces and appreciated how different each sounded in this live performance context. During the couple of hours between concerts, I hung out a bit in San Francisco’s tranquil Golden Gate Park, drove out to Seal Rocks a little before sunset to gaze at the Pacific, ate at a favorite Chinese food dive, and then returned to St. Mark’s for the evening session.
With night now fallen, the church had a completely different feeling and, appropriately enough, so did suites 4 through 6. The “Prelude” for No. 4 is one of the prettiest, with almost a lullaby quality in places and what sounds like a folk-derived melody. The “Allemande,” by contrast, was peppered with speedy runs and abrupt changes. This was the only movement of the 36 Yamashita played that seemed to give him any trouble at all, but he quickly rebounded—the “Sarabande” was lilting and delicate, and he leaped in the “Bourées” with great gusto. Every time he’d get to the galanteries in a suite, I’d immediately picture 17th century dancers cavorting merrily to the music, and the usually placid Yamashita would occasionally accentuate certain beats with a quick jerk of the head. He even let loose with a few short, circular “windmill” arm movements here and there. I felt Cello Suite No. 5 was the darkest of the six, with perhaps more melancholy in the “Prelude” and “Allemande,” and later, a unique “Sarabande” that unfolded slowly, literally one note at a time, like the sound of church bells pealing across a peaceful valley. Sad? Pensive? Who knows?
After intermission, the final suite proved to be a fitting and satisfying conclusion to a remarkable day and night. It’s the longest of the suites and also contains the most technical fireworks—speedy runs that Yamashita executed to perfection, one after another. After the lovely “Prelude” (which is somewhat reminiscent of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man Desiring”) there was another outside distraction for Yamashita to contend with: literal fireworks exploding down by the bay, the capper to the Fleet Week celebration. The church was far enough away that we could hear only faint distant thuds and booms, and the noises were short-lived, but still it was unfortunate timing. Yamashita was again unfazed and brought the sixth suite to a rousing conclusion, the audience hanging on every note, before exploding with applause and a standing ovation at the final gigue’s close.
For an encore he treated the crowd to a graceful and appealing Irish traditional piece that had been arranged by his daughter Kanahi: “Variation & Fantasia on the Star of the County Down.” Lovely and surprisingly adventurous.
What an engrossing and enriching journey these two concerts proved to be. I felt privileged to have witnessed Yamashita’s remarkable feat, the cumulative power of which is indescribable. Four days later, my head is still filled with glorious Bach bouncing through my head when I least expect it. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Photos by Milton Chong at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, SF