Antonio Lysy translates Bach’s musical phrases onto unconventional stages.
On September 23 at the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden, the cello professor and chair of the string section will perform the six cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach in artist Richard Serra’s sculpture Torqued Ellipse in an event titled Bach In the Serra. Lysy said the main inspiration for playing the suites, an ordered series of classical works, in Torqued Ellipse was experimenting with the unique acoustics in the enclosed space the sculpture offers. For Lysy, experimenting with making music in public spaces allows art to be a more accessible interpretation of Bach and Serra.
“Bringing classical music to a different audience, but also presenting it in a different light, has always been part of my job,” Lysy said.
Bach’s cello suites are unique within the classical repertoire because they are one of the few pieces in which the cellist plays unaccompanied, said Robert Baker, senior writer at the Herb Alpert School of Music. The individual aspects of the music and Bach push the boundaries of the cello as an instrument evoke a sublime and spiritual attitude that characterizes the suites, he said. In particular, Baker said the isolated quality the instrument uses to communicate each melody and harmony inspires a sense of awe in the listener.
“Most of his (Bach’s) music is spiritual, but this is the first work he did that was secular in its themes,” Baker said. “There’s something about it that’s both grand in a spiritual sense and very romantic.”
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One way Bach expressed his grandeur was through the use of counterpoint, or playing several different tunes together at once, Lysy said. Bach’s manipulation and use of each and every counter-melody allows a simple idea to be communicated in complex ways, Lysy added. Lysy’s majestic quality comes from the way uncomplicated melodies can build to an intricate finale.
Preparing for an unaccompanied solo suite like Bach’s cello suites brings with it an isolated quality of reflection and understanding of the notes in Bach’s score, Lysy said. Because the cello suites have 36 movements together, Lysy said performing the suites requires concentration, memory, and preparation.
The concert’s spatial backdrop, Serra’s Torqued Ellipse, is a steel sculpture depicting a Ovaline enclosed space where Serra attempts to experiment with mathematical perfection, said art curator and writer Fia Darroch. Aiming to distill his sculpture into the purest and most elemental form, Darroch said Serra wanted to push the idea of creating mathematical simplicity on such a large scale. For Darroch, Serra’s exhibition is interactive in that one can feel and observe the tangible effects of abstract mathematical concepts.
“The sculpture is about creating awareness of the place by just being there and disrupting the flow of traffic outside,” Darroch said. “Because of this, you are immediately aware of your size compared to the size of the sculpture, your gait and your gait, and how you are interacting with something that disrupts your daily flow.”
For Darroch, one of the main concepts of Torqued Ellipse is the interaction with sound, specifically the acoustics inside and outside the sculpture. Darroch also said that a psychological aspect of Serra’s sculpture is that her introspective can generate more varied uses than what was originally intended. In the case of Lysy, Darroch said, audiences interact not only with the structure itself, but also with the structure’s relationship to the musical phrases or melodies they hear in Bach’s cello suites.
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Hoping this concert will inspire future efforts, Lysy said he looks forward to more musicians being motivated to explore different venues to play their music. For Lysy, music is not limited to a rehearsal room or a concert hall, but should be performed on very different and unusual stages. By changing the perspective of classical music, Lysy hopes to convince all music listeners of how the sounds of Bach can comment on the most mundane experiences. Similarly, Baker said the goal is for the audience to be fully immersed in the listening experience of the music being performed in the room.
“Everyone’s going to react to it differently, and there’s nothing like live music,” Baker said. “It resonates most with our own spiritual being, if you will, our own emotional being. And I want people to be able to go and whatever they experience is exactly what they should be experiencing.”