By Megan Westberg
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“It was a wonderful conversation,” says Jan Vogler, enthusiasm permeating his warm, lilting voice. He’s remembering a recent moment in Germany, when a gentleman rode his bike past the world-renowned cellist, recognized him, and promptly doubled back for a chat about Bach. “He was a man who gave me the feeling that he used Bach’s music to enhance his life quality—to have a better day because he listened every day to the Bach Suites.”
Vogler, of course, is well acquainted with Bach’s Cello Suites, BWV 1007–1012, having recorded them in 2012 to much acclaim after having spent the majority of his life immersed in them. He’s been invited to play the suites all over the world, and on February 17, 2024, he’ll be playing them again at Carnegie Hall (“the Acropolis of classical music,” as he calls it), albeit in an unconventional format. That evening, Vogler will take the stage with poet and author Amanda Gorman—he’ll play suites nos. 1, 5, and 3 (in that order) in a program that combines Bach’s music with Gorman’s poetry.
“It was an idea that I carried with me for quite a while, to have Bach correspond in a dialogue with poetry. Because I grew up with both,” says Vogler. This idea had its roots in another of Vogler’s interdisciplinary collaborations, New Worlds, which he toured all over the planet with actor Bill Murray. “Bill is a great, great reader of poetry, and I heard him read some poems—for example, the poems of Lucille Clifton, who was a wonderful, wonderful poet. And so, slowly I got this idea in my head.”
But whose poetry would suit the music, would engage with it in stirring dialogue, perhaps leaven it with new shades of meaning and complexity? This isn’t an easy question. But then, Vogler turned on his television on January 20, 2021, to watch President Biden’s inauguration and saw Gorman reciting her poem “The Hill We Climb.” “I was, of course, like many people, struck by her eloquence, her incredible aura, and also by her poem,” says Vogler. “I started reading more of her poetry and also some articles she wrote, and then at some point, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t she be the most fantastic contemporary answer in poetry to Bach’s music?’”
Gorman, at the time of the inauguration, was 22—the youngest ever inaugural poet in the United States. Her work juxtaposed the hope for a more unified future with the challenges presented by a fractured present and past, her words spinning into an electrifying rhythmic cadence that was both lively and unhurried. By the time she stood before those assembled on that bright, cold winter’s day, she had already authored a book of poetry, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, in 2015, and been appointed National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017 by Urban Word—the organization’s first. Penguin Random House has since published gift editions of “The Hill We Climb” in addition to Change Sings, a “lyrical picture book debut,” Call Us What We Carry, a poetry collection, and Something, Someday, a second picture book, all by the author-poet it calls “a committed advocate for the environment, racial equality, and gender justice.” Gorman has also written for the New York Times.
“She was incorporating everything I admired about the changing values of our society and some corrections being made finally,” says Vogler, who lives in New York and has children roughly the same age as Gorman. “She is an incredibly talented person and wonderful young woman with an unbelievable mission she feels and lives.”
Beyond the Classical World
Cellist Pablo Casals famously stumbled upon a copy of Bach’s Cello Suites around the turn of the last century in a music shop in Barcelona, then set about first mastering them and then popularizing them. These pieces have occupied a special place in the repertoire for cello ever since. Cellist Marianne Dumas’ website, bachcellosuites.com, asserts that there have been more than two hundred recordings of the suites between 1938 and 2022, with more, no doubt, on the way. So within the classical music world, Bach’s six suites are all but inescapable. However, it is their ubiquity beyond the classical music world, their capacity to seep gradually into a more general public consciousness, that is perhaps the most perplexing thing about them. They’re beautiful, no doubt, but there has been other beautiful music written in the past three centuries. Because that’s the thing—they’re three hundred years old. So why should these pieces—the prelude to the first suite in particular—show up with regularity in movie and television soundtracks, children’s educational programming, and background music to any number of Instagram posts?
“I will be very flexible and will be reacting to Amanda and trying to be alive and in the moment.”—Jan Vogler
This is also not an easy question. “I don’t really know!” exclaims Vogler with a laugh. But he has a few ideas. “It could be the register of the cello, which is very much the register of a cantor or a preacher or someone who speaks to you in a comfortable voice and calms you down.” He also points to Casals himself representing a source of the suites’ fascination, though that would probably not extend too far beyond the music’s usual concert hall haunts. But then he points to the structure of each suite, the positioning of light and dark—that once an audience has heard one, they have “in their biorhythm” the comfort of knowing “how these suites will go down.” And this familiarity compounds quickly.
“It’s an incredible journey, each suite, and each suite is so different, and yet, if you have heard them maybe five, ten times, you understand a lot of it, so audiences have a pretty easy way in, I would say.”
Vogler has been playing Bach’s Cello Suites since he approached the first at around age 12 and cites the influences of both performance practice and his upbringing in East Berlin by parents who were from Leipzig and steeped in the Bach tradition, “hearing every Easter oratorios or Christmas oratorios from the Saint Thomas Church.” Though he’s played them countless times, this is music that resists a set form. “I feel confident that I have a path, but I want to evolve always, and I want to grow, and I want to update my Bach each time I play,” says Vogler. “Every player who plays these wonderful pieces knows they are never boring.”
Enter Amanda Gorman. “Like so many people,” she says in a release, “Bach’s music captures my heart and my imagination. To be in dialogue with it, and with Jan and his cello—a Stradivari that was made around the time that Bach wrote this music—is to touch something timeless.” (Vogler plays the 1707 “ex-Castelbarco, Fau’ Strad, and the suites were written between 1717 and 1723.)
Vogler has chosen his suites carefully to give Gorman adequate time and space to engage in dialogue with the music. The first is fairly short, the fifth shorter than the second and with the added allure of scordatura, which “always gives this very dark and wonderful contrast,” according to Vogler. “The whole cello sounds different.” Then on to the brighter third suite to close. Gorman may choose her work right up to the moment of the concert based on what’s happening in the world—a thought that seems to delight Vogler, who looks forward to the inspiration her work will provide. “I will prepare my Bach the way I play it—the way I play it at that point—and then I will be very flexible and will be reacting to her and trying to be alive and in the moment,” he says. He expects her poetry will influence his interpretation of the music in notable ways.
“With Amanda,” he says, “listening to her poetry, her voice, her intensity, her rhythm, I think I will play some movements perhaps faster or slower responding to it, and I will perhaps find in some movements more depth.” Ideally, the audience will find it an enchanting conversation, Bach’s ancient voice and Gorman’s contemporary one speaking to one another across the ages. “My hope is that it will be on another level from hearing just the poems or just the suites. Because I think for everyone there will be something.”
And about that, Vogler is quite passionate. “We live in a classical music world that is fine, that is functional, but I think we have challenges ahead if we look into our classical music scene. There’s definitely not enough innovation; there’s definitely not enough inspiration in trying new concepts.” And so, for him, projects like these are not only about sparking his own artistic imagination, but about providing entry points for audiences that may be interested in musical experiences beyond the usual fare. Inviting people into a concert hall by looking to new sources of artistic collaboration and enlightenment. Finding a new recipe that might appeal to a changing palate. “The ingredients, they represent how we can bring Bach maybe to new audiences,” Vogler says. “I’ll be playing these wonderful suites, which I’m so familiar with from my culture, and also the universal message that Bach’s music always represents, especially those iconic suites for just one cello. And then I think Amanda’s poems will be both a universal answer but also a very contemporary answer.”
Together, he thinks, they represent something new, something exciting, something open and inclusive. “For everyone, there’s some anchor there. And the anchor is important, because we want to bring new audiences to our halls, and we want to bring a lot of new people into classical music concerts. And I think with projects like this, we can definitely open the whole gate and say, Look, come for whatever you come for! Come because you are a fan of Bach’s music. Come because maybe you’re a big fan of Amanda’s. Come because you’re a big fan of her poetry. Come because you want to hear her read. Come because maybe you’ve heard me before. It doesn’t matter. In the end, the audience will all be united by this unique experience.”