Alan Alda Returns to Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival with a Tale of Bach

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Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival 2017 and a a program on "The Mendelssohns, Fanny and Felix," with, from left, Alan Alda, flutist Marya Martin and pianist Gilles Vonsattel. Photo by Michael Lawrence.

For Alan Alda, effectively communicating with others has long been a prime motivator. After hosting the television show “Scientific American Frontiers” on PBS for 14 years, the Emmy-award winning actor and author (and South Fork resident) became a founder of Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, an institution with a mission to train scientists to effectively and clearly convey their ideas to the rest of the world.

In recent years, Alda has furthered his mission through “Clear + Vivid,” a podcast featuring a wide-ranging list of well-known guests who engage in discussions that get to the heart of what it means to be an effective communicator.

But besides these projects, Alda has also been a longtime friend to Bridgehampton Chamber Music (BCM) and its founder and artistic director, flutist Marya Martin. In recent years, the two have teamed up to create another kind of communication — narrative programs for BCM’s summer music festival that offer a behind-the-scenes look at specific pieces of music and what was happening at the time in the personal lives of the composers who wrote them.

Past programs have focused on Mozart, Brahms, and Robert and Clara Schumann and recently, both Alda and Martin explained in phone interviews how the process of developing the narrative pieces for the BCM festival works.

Marya Martin speaks to the audience at a previous BCMF concert. Michael Lawrence photo.

“It’s very much a collaboration,” Martin said. “I know some things and he knows some things. He knows how to create a story and one thing that makes a good story is letters of composers in their own words. That gives you a huge insight and visceral reaction to the music.”

“Once we decide on a composer, she leaves it up to me,” Alda added. “It was very easy to find stories, but I always made sure I was working from her scheduled music. Marya’s knowledgeable — it started with Mozart and his letters and stories were so clear that related to the pieces. Then she suggested Brahms and Schumann.

“I also learned a lot from my wife Arlene and her friends who are world-class musicians,” he added, noting that his wife, a clarinetist, was formerly with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.

With the BCM concerts taking place in person this year after COVID-19 canceled the 2020 season, Alda is back as well with a new narrative program. On Wednesday, August 4, he will open the festival at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church with “Composer Portrait: Bach’s Chaconne,” a program devoted to J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin, which will be performed by violinist Jennifer Koh.

Violinist Jennifer Koh will perform Bach’s Chaconne.

In developing these programs, Alda finds the most effective way into the life of a composer is through storytelling. By exploring the written letters, diaries and documents left behind, he is able to develop a fuller picture of what was happening in the life of a composer during the time in which a piece of music was written. And that’s exactly what he did in researching Bach and the Chaconne, though he admits, this time around the task was somewhat more challenging than it had been in the past.

“It’s been different than the others I have done because there are very few letters from Bach,” Alda admitted. “Usually, the story is in the words of the people themselves. I do have a few quotes Bach said, but the more interesting part of his life comes from court and church records.

“Some of the stories are unexpected and fun,” he added. “He was much more human than we thought.”

Composed between 1718 and 1720, it’s believed that Bach wrote the Chaconne after returning from a trip to discover that his wife Maria Barbara (mother of the first seven of his 20 children) had died while he was away. While it’s logical to assume that the piece was written as a response to Bach’s grief over his wife’s death, his motivation isn’t entirely clear or well-documented.

“At that stage, he had seven kids with his wife and made money playing music at court,” Martin explained. “He wrote this piece after his wife had died. But Bach was not one who wore his emotions on his sleeve. It’s raw and deep emotion, but it wasn’t glossed over in any way. This piece is amazingly strong and in the solo violin we hear this raw emotion seeping out of it. It’s profound, not sad.”

Though Bach was obviously dedicated to having lots of children, by all accounts, as a composer he was even more dedicated to (and under contract with) the church. Those official records are where Alda found insight into Bach’s life and he notes that his devotion to religion, while absolute, did not make him infallible.

Alan Alda speaking from the stage at a previous BCMF concert. Michael Lawrence photo.

“He would say the purpose of music is to celebrate and worship God,” Alda said. “However, he had a tempestuous side and could become angry and impatient and call people names. He was short tempered. If he didn’t want to work with a student he would ignore him or get rid of him.

“He had a lot of flaws, like the rest of us, and the fact he was devoted to the church didn’t mean he was a saint,” said Alda.

While the programs he has created for the BCM festivals have helped Alda come to understand a great deal more about the personal lives of the composers he’s focused on, he finds that one of the most gratifying aspects of the collaboration have been the reactions of both audiences and the musicians to the stories he’s uncovered.

“What was interesting about the other readings we’ve done is the musicians have told me something similar to the audiences — that they enjoy them because the music has a deeper level with the stories,” Alda said. “They add context around what they’re listening to. I always tell the stories of what happened in and around the writing of the piece itself, and musicians tell me they’ve dug into the music more than they might have because of the stories.

“Hearing stories that are evocative and kind of emotional right before you play might add something to the playing and the way you do it,” he added. “I listen for things other than I normally would have if I didn’t know the stories.”

Alan Alda and Marya Martin at Bobby Vans in Bridgehampton. Michael Lawrence photo.

When asked about this specific piece of music, and what he likes about Bach’s Chaconne, Alda responded, “It’s hard to describe, because once it starts I get carried along with it. For me, it goes through deep emotions and alternates with the recognition of joy, but not necessarily joy itself.

“If you take it as a kind of memoriam for his wife, you hear a lot in it that’s very moving.”

The Bridgehampton Chamber Music’s opening program “Composer Portrait: Bach’s Chaconne” featuring Jennifer Koh, violin, and Alan Alda, narrator, will be performed on Wednesday, August 4, at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. at Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, 2429 Montauk Highway, Bridgehampton. The performance will conclude with a brief Q&A with Alda and Koh. Tickets are $45 and $65 ($10 students) at bcmf.org.

Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival Schedule

The 38th annual Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival will present 13 concerts from August 4 to 22. Venues include the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, the Parrish Art Museum and Channing Sculpture Garden at Channing Daughter’s Winery.

In the past, BCMF has offered concerts that are two-hours long with an intermission. But this year, in order to provide for social distancing, indoor concerts will be an hour-long and offered twice each evening.

The Schedule:

Wednesday, August 4, at 5 and 7 p.m. Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church

“Composer Portrait: Bach’s Chaconne” J. S. Bach Partita in D minor for Violin, BWV 1004 with Alan Alda, narrator and Jennifer Koh, violin

Saturday, August 7, at 6:30 p.m. Annual benefit with concert, cocktails and dinner at Atlantic Golf Club

“Joy in Gathering” W.A. Mozart (arr. M. Martin) “Eine Kliene Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music) for Winds and Strings, K. 525”; Louis Spohr “Nonet in F major for Winds and Strings, Op. 31”

Tickets $1,500, $2,000. Call Michael Lawrence at 212-741-9073 to purchase

Sunday, August 8, at 5 and 7 p.m. Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church

“A Lotta Night Music” W.A. Mozart (arr. Martin) “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music) for Winds and Strings, K. 525”; Ludwig Thuille “Sextet for Piano and Winds in B-flat major, Op. 6”

Wednesday, August 11, at 5 and 7 p.m. Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church

“Schubert’s Cello Quintet” Jean-Baptiste Barrière “Sonata X for Two Cellos”; Franz Schubert “Cello Quintet in C major, D. 956”

Sunday, August 15, at 5 and 7 p.m. Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church

“Beethoven & Brahms” Ludwig van Beethoven “Folksongs for Baritone, Flute, Violin, Cello, and Piano;” Johannes Brahms “Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25”

Tuesday, August 17, at 6:30 p.m. Parrish Art Museum

“BCMF @ the Parrish” Luigi Boccherini “Quintet for Flute and Strings in F major”; Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky “Souvenir de Florence in D minor, Op. 70”

Tickets: $35

Friday, August 20, at 6 p.m. – wine and hors d’oeuvres at Channing Sculpture Garden

“Wm. Brian Little Concert: Seasons Upon Seasons” Eric Ewazen “Seasons of Our Time for Flute, Violins, Viola, Cello, Bass, and Harpsichord (BCM commission, world premiere); Antonio Vivaldi “Spring” and “Summer” from “The Four Seasons, Op. 8”; Astor Piazzolla “Fall” and “Winter” from “Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas” (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires)

Tickets: $175

Sunday, August 22, at 5 and 7 p.m. Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church

“Season Finale – Uplift and Romance” Nino Rota “Trio for Flute, Violin, and Piano”; Max Bruch “Piano Quintet”

The performers: Marya Martin (flute); James Austin Smith (oboe); Yasmina Spiegelberg (clarinet); Peter Kolkay (bassoon); Stewart Rose (horn); Benjamin Beilman, Stella Chen, Frank Huang, Ani Kavafian, Jennifer Koh, Tessa Lark, Kristin Lee, Amy Schwartz Moretti, Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu (violin); Ettore Causa, Haesue Lee, Matthew Lipman, Cynthia Phelps, Cong Wu (viola); Carter Brey, Clive Greensmith, Mihai Marica, Peter Stumpf, Paul Watkins (cello); Xavier Foley, Donald Palma (bass); Michael Brown, Henry Kramer, Gilles Vonsattel (piano); Kenneth Weiss (harpsichord); Gregory Feldmann (bariton); Alan Alda (narrator).

Unless otherwise noted, tickets are $45 and $65 ($10 for students), and available at bcmf.org, or by calling 212-741-9403.

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