Entertainment, Reviews

MacNeil Masters Rare Bach Violin Solos at Barton Concert

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by David K. Rodgers

BARTON – Roy McNeil of Greensboro gave a concert last Sunday evening at the Barton United Church of Christ, consisting of three works for solo violin by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), two Partitas and two movements from a Sonata, repeating the program he presented at the Greensboro United Church of Christ on May 28.

A total of six pieces for unaccompanied violin were written by Bach during his stay as Kapellmeister (conductor) at the ducal court of Cöthen from 1717 to 1723, and they remain, after some 300 years, among the most challenging works in the whole violin repertoire.

This was a rare opportunity to hear a superb performance of compositions which very few musicians can master. McNeil has been working on them for over 10 years, and he played them entirely from memory, without any score in front of him. The acoustics of the sanctuary in Barton gave the tone of his violin a beautiful resonance and added an immediate intensity to the concert.

He began with the Partita No. 2 in D Minor, the first movement being an Allemanda in a slow tempo, somewhat dark and melancholy, based on German folk dance rhythms. A Corrente followed, derived from both French and Italian traditions, in a faster speed with a lighter ambiance.

Somewhat more considered in its pace was the third section, a Sarabana of Spanish origin, a dance once considered to push the limits of propriety too far, so as to be banned in certain countries. The Giga which followed had an appropriately faster rhythm, readily visualized as an energetic sailors’ dance

originating in England and Ireland. The last movement, a Ciaccona, was derived from Spain with roots in South America. It is curiously much longer than any of the previous four parts and has an emotional depth that reaches transcendental levels.

As McNeil explained in his introduction, there is evidence that this Ciaccona was written in response to the unexpected death of Bach’s first wife in 1720. More processional in tempo and meditative in mood, it tells a story without words.

Throughout his performance, McNeil made this music breathe, playing “in a singing manner” as Bach advised one of his own sons, with fine phrasing and giving expressive feeling to every note. His virtuosic technique was particularly demonstrated in the many double and even triple stops that Bach delighted in using here, which require bowing two or three strings on the violin simultaneously so as to create the impression of another violin joining in a parallel or contrasting vocal line, a veritable conversation.

Next was the last two movements of the Sonata No. 3 in C Major, with a melancholy Largo juxtaposed with an Allegro Assai having a much more vigorous tempo. Seeing these works performed as well as hearing them with all the complexity of the Baroque arabesques helps us to better understand their structures and to recognize what an astonishing creative mind Bach had, which is an important aspect of any live concert.

The final work on the program was the Partita No. 3 in E Major. Starting with a Preludio in a fast tempo, like the previous Partita, it drew on the vitality of popular rhythms, especially from France. The much slower Loure was based on rustic dances accompanied by bagpipes. The Gavotte in Rondeau explored the initial melody in rounds, while the Minuet 1 and 2 provided contrast at a more medium pace. The Bourӗe repeated the speed of the Gavotte and the final Giga provided a vigorous finale.

Again, McNeil’s ability to bring this music alive and his skill in combining precision with feeling was superlative, and he received an enthusiastic standing ovation from a very appreciative audience.

Roy McNeil grew up in Greensboro and is a composer, teacher of stringed instruments as well as a producer and director of local concerts, most recently at the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro this past spring. We hope he will continue to share his deep love of music in many future concerts in this area.

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