Compiled by Stephanie Powell
Bach’s music is certainly a rite of passage for many musicians. The beauty, complexity and magic that exists within these scores is considered unrivaled by many. In honor of the late composer and his ongoing legacy, Strings tapped 10 professional violinists, violists and cellists and asked: What is your favorite memory playing Bach?
“After I graduated from conservatory, I felt really lost. I didn’t want to play in an orchestra or a string quartet. I had no idea what my career would look like. The uncertainty was scary! I was just beginning my journey in music production—I had a loop station and my laptop. One night I was playing through the Preludio from Bach’s E Major Partita. A piece I learned as a kid. On a whim, I looped the opening. I added more elements and even layered some beats. I felt so inspired by this ‘thing’ I had reimagined. It was so inspiring! It was, for me, one of my coolest experiences with Bach.”
“I was 14 years old and I was doing a music course in the Alps in France. I remember practicing on the balcony of my bedroom, which had a direct view over the mountains. The sound was resonating and the view I was looking at perfectly represented the mood I was imagining for the G minor Adagio from Bach’s first solo Sonata. I felt so free whilst playing, I was not thinking about anything specific, I was just in the moment.”
—Esther Abrami, violinist
“My favorite memory of Bach is the first time I heard the Chaconne performed by Nathan Milstein. I believe it was his final recital tour. When I was finally prepared to learn and perform the Chaconne, I was brought back to these memories when I was 6 years old, listening to a great violinist. I had no idea that I would have the opportunity to play this work in my own life.”
—Jennifer Koh, violinist
“My favorite memory of playing Bach is playing Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and thinking to myself: This is hip hop. Years later we turn that same Brandenburg song into one of Black Violin top-five songs.”
—Wil B., violist in Black Violin
“Although I’ve performed Bach’s complete works in recitals and single movements as encores, the favorite memory truly could not be called favorite, but rather a ‘special’ memory or a memory that is associated with someone who is no longer with us. Yes, funerals. A few precious moments when no other music could express sorrow and grief. It is the immersive nature of Bach’s music that has a transcendental quality where you can experience the divine, understand purpose and be in touch with something or someone through the subtle vibrations of your instrument.
“Through Bach’s architectural chords and harmonic progressions, I’ve experienced a higher power that was beyond what words can express. It is no surprise that three months into the pandemic in 2020, many of us immediately turned to Bach for safe heaven. Although only a temporary psychological escape, it worked. In Bach’s music—there is hope and, with that hope, there is always a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. A light that we all need right now.”
—Philippe Quint, violinist
“When I started Chaconne Project I organized pop-up performances of the Bach Chaconne in various places of social gathering that wouldn’t typically host live music. One of my favorite memories was playing at a local wine store in the West Village. They were having a wine tasting event that day—the only person that knew that I was going to play was the wine shop owner. Without any announcements, I unpacked my violin, closed my eyes and started to play. I could feel the room grow quiet and the focus shift to the music. As soon as I stopped, the whole room burst into an enthusiastic applause. What made it so memorable was how this surprise performance of the Chaconne brought a room full of complete strangers together to listen to Bach unexpectedly. I was truly moved by this shared experience and believe people connected in this brief moment, in an unusual way.”
—Pauline Kim Harris, violinist
“One of my fondest memories of playing Bach [G minor fugue] was on a warm summer day on the balcony of my mother’s apartment when I was in high school. As I played, the neighborhood kids began gathering below me on their little bikes and rode in circles to the music with more and more frenzy. Afterwards, I was told by the management that, while the music was beautiful, they didn’t want me to excite the kids, which would disturb the other neighbors, and that I should practice indoors. It was that moment I realized the music I played could be an instrument for social unrest, which we have continued to do in the Del Sol Quartet, championing pieces that share the issues we all face today.”
—Charlton Lee, violist in the Del Sol String Quartet
“Like every cellist, Bach has been part of my whole lifetime of playing the instrument—with moments of total inspiration to those that were rather bizarre. One of my more favorite memories was in high school, performing the third Cello Suite with Dance Prism, the local ballet company in my hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. I was part of the first half of the ballet performance, quickly changing and grabbing my cello to sit down and perform the C Major Suite in a ballet performance that I helped shape with my long-time ballet teacher/choreographer. It’s suddenly no surprise, many years later, that one of my all-time favorite projects with the Del Sol Quartet (my San Francisco-based group) was “Stringwreck”—a show where the string quartet collides with the world of dance onstage.”
—Kathryn Bates, cellist in the Del Sol Quartet
“During the early stages of the pandemic, when we were all locked down in our homes, a colleague of mine started a wonderful musical initiative, where she asked her network of musician friends to record videos of themselves playing music in their homes, to share with front-line health care workers in the Boston area. During this time sequestered in my own home, I had started re-learning Bach’s sixth Cello Suite, which is so joyful, extroverted and virtuosic, and decided to record the Sarabande. It was a funny sensation, after years and years playing with others, to attempt to create harmony and voice leading with a single instrument. In hindsight I see that this encapsulated our experience so well—this desire to connect and share with others, while struggling to create polyphony with ourselves. It felt lonely yet also incredibly poignant.”
—Kee-Hyun Kim, cellist in the Parker Quartet
“When I was in college, I learned the devastating news that a close Interlochen Arts Camp friend of mine, who was a pianist, had tragically died in a rock climbing accident at age 19. After processing this news, I called my friend’s parents and learned that they were in the process of establishing a scholarship fund in their son’s name to provide music lessons to underserved youth in their community. This kind of work was a passion of their son’s, and they felt this was where they could put their energy to honor his legacy.
“I immediately had the idea to give a recital as a benefit for this scholarship fund, and when creating a program, I knew I wanted to include some solo Bach. At the time, my teacher, Kim Kashkashian, often paired solo Bach movements with solo Kurtág movements—the distilled worlds one can enter through both Kurtág and Bach make the pairing quite striking, and I knew this pairing could be an effective meditative center for an otherwise standard viola recital of Schumann, Milhaud, and Brahms. I distinctly remember the sense of space and the potency of the silence in the hall that night—all of us there feeling grief for the person we had lost, but also being there together in each distilled moment and with hope that we could create something beautiful together.”
—Jessica Bodner, violist in the Parker Quartet