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Douglas Hofstadter's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, points out similarities between the artistic products of musician J.S. Bach and graphic artist M.C. Escher. In particular, Hofstadter (whose book was mentioned in this concert's program booklet, but without naming its author) deals with what he calls the "self-referential" structural elements of the products of his three subjects.
In connection with the North Carolina Museum of Art's current Escher exhibit (running through Jan. 17), Chamber Music Raleigh, the Museum's companion organization for the "Sights & Sounds on Sundays" concert series, presented the well-known Mallarmé Chamber Players in music well-chosen to reflect Escher's art: Bach's Musical Offering (Musikaliches Opfer, S.1079, hereinafter referred to as "MO").
The program was in the form of a lecture-concert, appropriate because the MO was likely never intended to be heard complete, in concert. It is a collection of thirteen musical works, each based on the same musical theme attributed to Frederick the Great, himself an accomplished flutist whose 1750 Quantz flute is part of the Miller flute collection at the Library of Congress. In addition to two Ricercare (fugues) and a trio sonata on the king's theme, there are ten short canonic treatments of the royal melody. Performers Elizabeth Field, violin, Elaine Funaro, harpsichord, Suzanne Rousso, viola, Rebecca Troxler, flute, and Stephanie Vial, 'cello, played canons which went not only forward but also backwards, and in mirroring structure, in fugal form, in varying rhythmic guises such as augmentation, and …., well, you get the idea. Showing no sign of his advancing years, Bach's genius produced permutations of Frederick's theme which pushed the technical limits of what any composer could have done with canons (rounds), a quintessential self-referential music.
Rousso, the Artistic Director of the Mallarmé ensemble, spoke about each work before it was played, displaying on a large screen one of Escher's works which paralled the music in its construction. For example, the three-voice Ricercar was coupled with Escher's "Snakes," a woodcut requiring three separate blocks to produce; Bach's mirror canon was coupled with Escher's "Magic Mirror." (The musical "mirror" was cracked: after stopping midway through the piece and re-starting because one instrument lost its way, the group's reprise suffered the same fate but was rescued by Funaro, who took over the errant part and continued it to the work's conclusion.)
The musicians, all playing baroque instruments except for the modern-but-baroque-style harpsichord, played with the stylistic awareness and superb musicianship for which this group is known. The Museum's newly-refurbished auditorium was used for the first time even though work remains to be done. When the present dry-wall is covered with wood, the excellent acoustics will likely be even better. The room seemed to provide an especially warm welcome to Troxler's flute; her sound was not just clear but deliciously warm, too, as it filled the room.
The event would have benefitted from more extensive written notes. Not even the names of the MO's sections were in the program booklet, which devoted 3½ pages to biographical information about the performers, but only ½ page to the musical program itself. While the program booklet includes the programs for the entire "Sights & Sounds" series, a separate program-specific insert would have helped the large and appreciative audience to understand more about what they came to hear and see.
The pairing of Bach's music with Escher's graphic artwork, together with the auditorium's renewal, made this first of the "Sights & Sounds" 2015-16 season an artistic success which augurs well for the remaining programs.
Note: There are numerous NCMA events in conjunction with the Escher exhibit and its companion showing of works by Leonardo da Vinci. See our calendar for details.