Coping with crisisNicholas DiEugenio, violinist and associate professor of music at UNC-Chapel Hill, presented a virtual mini-series, Alone/Engaged which included his own live recordings of the complete cycle of J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin captured at Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill. He coupled each of the three episodes with a conversation with one of his admirable friends. His goals: to bring to life and make relevant the music he loves during these challenging times and to encourage audience members to engage with our own communities through our music practices.

“Why J.S. Bach,” you ask? One might suggest other composers (besides a dead, white European) to edify listeners during a pandemic; perhaps a living composer who might lift up our spirits. Besides being a great musician and composer, Bach was a family man with all the attached responsibilities. His working conditions were often challenging, and he did not always get along with petty town councilmen (or royalty) who held the purse strings. Yet life during the 18th century was not so very different from our current circumstances of the 21st century. Without the miracles of modern medicine, Bach and his family faced a dangerous world. He lost his young wife, Maria Barbara, while he was absent; some of his children did not survive their first year of life, and only about half of them survived to adulthood. But during his tenure in Köthen (1717-23) as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold, he was cheered by the secular life and buoyed by the stimulation and artistry of Italian concertos, the dance, and abilities of the court musicians.

During this time, Bach penned some of his most beloved violin music – the Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. To some, they might be considered “top-drawer” pieces – music he wrote for his own pleasure, though he probably had other performers in mind. In fact, the sonatas were suitable for the Lutheran church service. Today, the complete set forms an essential element of the standard repertoire. The Ciaccona from Partita No. 2, in D Minor, S.1004, for example, remains a very high bar for high achieving violinists. But these compositions will hold the attention of any music listener and stir up a range of emotions, from sorrow to joy and elation.

DiEugenio captured the emotional character of Bach’s works. Viewing his performances, to see close-up his face and body language, allowed one to see the artist’s complete engagement with the music. For this listener, the virtual performance was effective and very personal.

The Music Performances

On October 13, DiEugenio played his recording of Sonata in G minor, No. 1, S.1001, and closed with the Allemanda and Double from Partita No. 1 in B minor, S.1002. He played the Adagio (first section) with the emotional intensity of a prayer. Completely absorbed, he elicited the somber quality Bach must have intended. And through chords, delicate ornamentation, rhythm and phrasing, we heard a musical language that needed little explanation.

A Fuga (fugue) is included in each of the three sonatas. Bach excelled at writing fugues for the organ, but he crafted amazing works of art for an instrument with only four strings. The Baroque violin and bow allow a player the technical ability to play Bach’s rich contrapuntal writing. With a relatively flat bridge and near-convex bow, it’s an instrument made for the job. Equipped with this pair of tools, a skilled performer may gently coax double stops and chords that might otherwise sound brash.

DiEugenio played the chords delicately. But Bach presents other challenges – the elaborate ornamentation requires a bit of mathematical acumen to decipher. And understanding the placement and phrasing comes only with careful study. The virtuoso smiled as he played the Siciliano; his fingers flew over the fingerboard with great ease. DiEugenio’s interpretation warmed my heart.

The second episode (October 27) included Partita No. 2 in D minor, S.1004. The final movement, the great Ciaccona, has been performed and recorded alone by many performers, but to hear it played on a Baroque violin is an experience like no other. Sergiu Luca’s was my first recording of the complete works (Nonesuch: HC-73030), and oh, how I loved his performances. Each listening brings something new to the ears. With his own interpretation, DiEugenio brought the Ciaccona to life. But I also loved his performance of the other sections; the dance quality sprang to life under his hand. Picture (or not!) Baroque dancers with their powdered wigs and elegant costumes!

DiEugenio concluded with Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in A minor, S.1003 and Partita No. 3 in E, S.1006. Arranged for guitar, mandolin, and even mallet instruments, the partita will ring familiar to many. It can sweeten your day and lift you up.

The Conversations

On October 13, DiEugenio shared a conversation with Jacqueline Jove, director of education for the Sphinx Organization. My first listen left me somewhat puzzled. Jove talked about her own story: how she fell in love with the violin, and her course of study. Beginning with a wonderful magnet school, she learned to speak a third language (French). She also took music lessons that included violin, singing classes, and more. The combination of intensive music and language study prepared her for a rich, challenging career that includes performance, teaching, and community service. That was all very interesting. But half-way through the conversation, they talked about work of The Sphinx Organization and teaching. Considered in its entirety, DiEugenio’s triptych makes sense.

I don’t remember a single Black violin student in my college music school. Today, however, many music studios actively seek out a diverse population – not an easy task. DiEugenio and Jove talked about the rewards and difficulties of attracting good students, helping them reach high standards and at the same time offering a more inclusive repertoire. Jove’s work as director of education has challenged her to work toward these goals. She deserves applause. And I loved that Professor DiEugenio’s students would hear this program.

DiEugenio’s second episode (October 27) included a lively conversation with Vijay Gupta, the founder of Street Symphony in Los Angeles. Gupta’s social engagement includes men and women who live on the streets or are are incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized. At the outset of his work, he learned through humility and willingness to listen in order to touch the lives of those who are often overlooked. He debunks some of the ideas we hold about those less fortunate, including those with mental health disabilities. Gupta demonstrates the power of music as a means of communication “without words,” saying that everyone can engage with Bach’s music, no matter their circumstances. Gupta is unassuming, courageous and inspiring.

Kenneth Bean, trumpeter, conductor, and artist-citizen talked with DiEugenio (November 10) about his intricate path to a music career. Bean grew up in a family with modest resources but with the help of a teacher at the School for the Arts in Baltimore, he auditioned for Oberlin College, where he studied trumpet performance. But after his conducting course for music education, he fell in love with a new art. Today he combines his love of conducting and teaching with social activism through music education, mentoring, and service. For students planning a career, Kenny Bean suggests, “be open to possibilities.”

Bean currently serves as associate director for the Primavera Fund, conducts the Philadelphia Youth Orchestras, and serves on the faculty of Kinhaven Music School‘s summer music program. Bean’s kindness and enthusiasm for his work brightened my day. It was the perfect ending for the series.

I found Alone/Engaged to be immensely nourishing. DiEugenio’s conversations with friends illuminate the beauty of modern technology. And his performance of Bach’s music, with daylight sun streaming through a beautiful stained-glass window behind him, made for a glorious setting. If you missed the series, it’s not too late, on UNC’s YouTube Channel. Part I can be seen here. Part II is here, and Part III is here.

DiEugenio thanked communications coordinator Catherine Zachary, Joseph Causby, music director for Chapel of the Cross, and the UNC Violin Studio.