Photo by Teresa Tam
Cellist Juliana Soltis expected to be playing three concerts in a residency at the Phoenix Theatre in San Francisco this week, including all six of Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites. But concerns about the Covid-19 outbreak have led her to scale back to a single concert, which she’ll livestream, without a live audience on Friday night. She’s recently recorded an album of the Bach suites, with ornaments that go beyond the notes Bach wrote on the page.
She says whether they know what the suites are or they don’t, a lot of people have heard them and love them. “There’s one particular movement that’s so well known that complete strangers will come up to me on the street when they see me standing there, waiting for a Lyft with a cello on my back. They’ll come up to me, and they start to sing this movement of Bach, and they often don’t know that it’s Bach, but they’ll ask me, ‘Do you play that really pretty piece?’” That got her to thinking about a question for this most recent project. “What if this music that we know so well, what if this music that we love so much was incomplete? What if there was more?” Any other composer of the Baroque would have expected the player to add their own spin on the music. “Improvisation is a huge part of the musical culture. And composers are leaving behind spaces in their scores, for the performers to complete their process of composition in the moment of performance. But I realized that for some reason, when we talk about Bach, when we play Bach, we don’t ornament. And I thought, well, do we have historical evidence that says we don’t ornament Bach, that he didn’t want his music to be ornamented, that we shouldn’t ornament Bach? We have these demigods in our world, in this world of classical music, those marble busts up on the shelf. We’re taught to revere these composers, and with some justification – their works are great! But our reverence has actually gotten in our way.”