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Sunday, March 21, 2004

Happy birthday, Bach!

At a concert celebrating J.S. Bach's birthday last night, I realized that, um, I'm getting older. (Bach turns 319 today. Lotta candles.) The organ prelude transported me back to the summer of 1982, when I was an eleven-year-old kid peddling my bike to the Riverside Mall in Eugene, Oregon, with my little brother. In the music store, there was a cardboard display from a cheap-o Soviet classical music label, "Melodiya Allegro," advertising cassettes four for $10. Yes, friends, my first albums weren't by Journey or Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (whose songs I knew from the roller-skating rink); they were "J.S. Bach Organ Music," "J.S. Bach Toccatas for Organ," "Beethoven Symphony No. 6," and "Beethoven Symphony No. 9." I didn't regret buying the Beethoven, but I found those two cassettes of organ music the most amazing things I'd ever heard. A nerd was born — or, perhaps, exacerbated. "Toccatas for Organ" (with Harry Grodberg) may be one old tape, but I'm listening to it now with unalloyed delight.

Nineteen years ago, my family had moved back to Orem, Utah, and I was a secret teenage fan of the local university classical music station, KBYU. I loved Michael Barone's "Pipe Dreams" program. (Tangential rant: The snobbery of Boston public radio is unsurpassable. Like many other very fine programs produced elsewhere, "Pipe Dreams" isn't broadcast by WGBH. I miss it. I miss Jim Svejda's "Record Shelf," too.) When the radio station informed me that Bach's 300th birthday would be celebrated by a series of recitals featuring all of Bach's organ music, well, let's just say that I made a note of it and got a hold of the bus schedule.

I have no idea if the series ever ran its full course, since Bach wrote an awful lot of organ music. It seemed as if I was celebrating Bach's tricentennial for several years. Those recitals were purely thrilling. I love the memory of them. Because I didn't go to a rock concert until Midnight Oil's Diesel and Dust show in Salt Lake City on the night of my 18th birthday — the subject for another post, perhaps — the organ recitals were the loudest, most moving musical experiences I'd known. I was a total fan.

The organ console sat directly in front of the first row of seats in the small concert hall, and I planted myself just to the side in the front row so I could watch the feet and hands of the organist. At the end of each recital, I'm sure I amused the organists by asking them to autograph my programs. (If any of you should ever read this, dear organists, I was the orange-haired kid with the big glasses.) A few years ago, when I saw that BYU's Douglas Bush was coming to play the E. Power Biggs organ in Harvard's Adolphus Busch Hall, of course I went to hear him play — and to thank him for those recitals in Provo. But that organ console is up in a balcony, and I never saw him come downstairs afterward. So here's a public thank-you.

To top it all off, KBYU offered donors a ceramic and brass lapel pin celebrating the tricentennial in 1985, and I wore mine proudly. (There are family photos in which I look like quite the dork with my pin fixed to my sweater.) The other boys at church liked to tease me for my "Batch" pin. Good times.

I was willing to endure a lot of ribbing for Bach. In fact, I'm posting this little tribute because I'm willing to mock myself and endure even more. His music moved me — still moves me — like nothing else. When WHRB in Cambridge marked the 250th anniversary of Bach's death in 2000 by playing all of his music in chronological sequence over ten days, those ten days were like a sojourn in Dante's Paradiso. When the last bar from the unfinished Art of Fugue trailed off on the last day and the radio station simply allowed the silence to linger, it was heartbreaking and satisfying all at once.

Happy birthday to Bach, and a prayer of thanksgiving for his music.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 21 March 2004 at 9:18 AM

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2 comments:

Elizabeth:

March 22, 2006 12:10 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm sorry, but I don't find this dorky at all. I find it beautiful. Maybe it is dorky to say that. Or cheezy. But I like it.

Kevin M:

March 23, 2006 04:09 PM | Permalink for this comment

Indeed, it would have been far dorkier if your first album had been by Journey. Rock on, fanboy!



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