By Laurence Vittes | From the March-April 2023 issue of Strings magazine
J.S. Bach’s six Cello Suites, BWV 1007–1012, interspersed with 27 pieces of contemporary music, provide the soundtrack for Alisa Weilerstein’s Fragments project, an immersive musical event complete with costumes, lighting, and sets in which listeners experience a new theatrical environment intended to transform and intensify the concertgoing experience and liberate the music from all preconceptions. In order to ensure that the audience will come with open ears, the program will include only an article by Weilerstein and director Elkhanah Pulitzer. Even the handout, to be distributed after the performance, will only list the order of the works and their movements and biographies of the composers. Says another of Weilerstein’s collaborators, artistic producer and advisor Hanako Yamaguchi, “No one will have to read anything before the performance to get the full experience!”
Weilerstein and a growing number of artists are finding that the classical music they care about most is turning out to be repertoire that emerging younger demographics want to hear, so presenting it in theatrical trappings seems a natural step. “I was thinking generally of how we connect—and reconnect—with one another,” Weilerstein has written, “and how we can make the concert experience more visceral, intense, and welcoming. Personally, I listen more deeply if I am not preoccupied with context and can simply listen to what the music is communicating at the most fundamental level.”
Weilerstein asked each of the composers, balanced with respect to age, race, gender, geography, and style, to write ten minutes of music in two or three standalone fragments to be programed between new fragments from the other composers and movements by Bach. As she received the finished compositions, Weilerstein arranged them with Bach’s music to create six hour-long installments, each intended to “trace a powerful and wholly original emotional arc.”
To help audiences connect with the music, Weilerstein collaborated with Pulitzer, Yamaguchi, costume designer Carlos J. Soto, and set and lighting designer Seth Reiser to conjure up what Pulitzer describes as “theatrical magic to spark a deeper sensory experience for the audience,” and previewed the first two installments at Aspen last summer  for audiences, including at least one critic sworn to secrecy. Weilerstein describes the new compositions as “great pieces on their own by really skilled and great composers who know how to write for the cello. Some use extended techniques. Some are, let’s say, neoclassical. We’ll have 27 new solo pieces for the instrument; I think a lot of them, if not all, will become classics.”
For Pulitzer, the excitement at Aspen lay in the uncertainty. “Without the scaffolding of knowing who or what was coming next, it was really fascinating to hear these distinct and unique compositional voices next to one another. And as it was part of a live performance by an artist such as Alisa, who generated her own magic, the result connected directly with pure feeling.”
Weilerstein premiered Fragments 1 and 2 in Toronto in January , with performances scheduled for March and April in Irvine, Santa Barbara, La Jolla, and at Carnegie Hall. “After we do the last two in 2024, she’ll have all of them ready to do in some sort of marathon,” Pulitzer comments.
That multimedia solo Bach for the cello is becoming a trend, even if slowly, reflects an industry wide movement toward themed multimedia productions, which finds an enthusiastic supporter in Zachary Carrettin, the director of the Boulder Bach Festival who has performed solo Bach on the violin “hundreds of times with several dance companies. The performers shared an intimate awareness of one another’s artistry and a real-time shaping of the dance and music, even to the timing of the chiaroscuro transitions.”
Carrettin recalls performing “a choreographically anxious segment of Bach’s famous Chaconne with Boulder’s 3rd Law Dance/Theater,” when at the climax, “ten dancers ferociously circled around me and thrust hands and feet at me as I played a wireless electric violin with a Baroque bow. The lighting designer was 100-percent involved in contributing to and reacting to the musical events and choreographic events. Seeing it was amazing, I’m told, but being inside it was… radical.”
In September 2022, Antonio Lysy performed the Bach Cello Suites cycle inside Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipse, the monolithic steel artwork sculpture in UCLA’s famous sculpture garden. Lysy explains to me that “the fusion of 18th-century music with minimalist contemporary visual art was meant to enhance the viewer’s experience of both. Taking these suites into other places and spaces was a natural development of our devotion to these works. To listen to these suites in a different light can be incredibly inspiring to both listener and artist.
“How to achieve this sincerely and tastefully is the key,” he adds. “I like to play them in numerical order to hear the fluidity of Bach’s pen as they evolve so intricately.”
By contrast, one of the most interesting aspects of Fragments for Weilerstein was playing the suites “completely out of order. I tried to see what was true and fit together in terms of timing in order to create a coherent arc,” she says. “It was fun, like putting together a massive puzzle. When I ran through the first complete Fragment with the lighting and everything else for the first time, it was a powerful experience, the most personal thing I’ve ever done. The emotions of the entire team ran very strong; it was a special kind of moment.”
Weilerstein tells me that not only artists, but promoters, presenters, and managers have to start thinking outside the box, a sentiment echoed by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s president David Stull. Fresh off the school’s acquisition of London-based Askonas Holt, one of the world’s leading arts management companies, Stull says, “We’re seeing a recognition that the concept of providing experiences that doesn’t easily have parallels in the world is something that we need to address in all forms of art, and with classical music we need to understand that the form in which we’re going to offer this music needs to be addressed. It doesn’t mean that there’s any one answer, but these forays into using immersive media are excellent.
“In fact, the concept of an immersive experience is an essential part of the future, although,” he cautions, “I don’t think it’s typically going to define the future, just be part it.”
Cellist Jan Vogler offers a gentle counterpoint, writing me, “The Bach suites have a very special place in my heart. My parents were both born in Leipzig, where Bach lived and worked. I grew up listening to Leipzig performances of the oratorios, and later, I was influenced by the performance practice thinking of Anner Bylsma, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and Reinhard Goebel, which led me further and deeper into the world of Bach. I am very open to seeing these masterworks accompanied by multimedia elements, but personally, I will prefer to explore the famous churches in Saxony for my own Bach story. Even when experimenting with pictures and video, the element that always leads and inspires is the music of the master.”