On 11 September 2019, we return to the Albert Hall stage for ‘Bach Night’ at the BBC Proms, our first appearance since our Proms debut with Bach’s John Passion back in 2017. This time, it’s a wholly orchestral affair, as we perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s four orchestral suites (BWV 1066-69), alongside four new commissions from four of today’s foremost contemporary composers.
The idea springs from founder Henry Wood’s themed nights, which were an early feature in Proms programmes. From 1898, Monday was established as ‘Wagner Night’, and Fridays soon became Beethoven nights. As for ‘Bach Night’ — Henry Wood was one of the earliest champions of Bach’s music in England, and under his direction, all of Bach’s orchestral suites and Brandenburg concertos were heard in the Proms’ first decades. Made up of a series of eighteenth-century dances that explore a kaleidoscopic array of Baroque affects, Bach’s orchestral suites have long been favourites in Dunedin’s repertoire.
So why the new commissions too? When Henry Wood programmed his themed nights all those years ago, he typically included complementary works or his own arrangements alongside these stalwarts of the repertoire. It seems fitting, then, to pay tribute to Wood’s contemporary mindset by pairing Bach’s Suites with the music of today, a reminder of ongoing dialogue between historical and contemporary composers. Whether this is the first time you have heard the suites, or the thirty-first, we hope this will allow you to hear them with fresh ears, that you will hear things differently.
So, in association with the BBC Proms, we have co-commissioned four leading composers — Stuart MacRae, Nico Muhly, Ailie Robertson and Stevie Wishart — to respond to Bach’s suites and compose a new dance for each one ‘in any way they see fit’. In other words, don’t be too surprised if you hear a few modern techniques on these historical instruments. Part of the delight in commissioning these new works is finding out how modern composers explore and respond to period instruments. In fact, almost anything goes, only ‘Bachian pastiche’ was excluded from the brief!
Coming from a background in early music, Nico Muhly has written his Tambourin with allusions to one of Bach’s principal sources of inspiration – the French composer Jean-Phillippe Rameau (1683-1764). Rameau included the tambourin (originally a Provençal dance with an upbeat duple metre) in several of his operas, and Nico’s piece captures a similar essence with a palpable sense of energy.
The first half of the concert concludes with a tango – a dance form, yes, although not one that Bach would have known. Stevie Wishart’s piece was inspired by Bach’s first orchestral suite, and brings together the cool, laid-back phrasing of the tango with the precision of Bach’s instrumental writing. Stevie has also incorporated the singing of the Argentinian hooded grebe (Podiceps gallardoi), an astonishingly musical bird — currently at risk of extinction — whose movement resembles something of a ‘bird tango’.
Perhaps the most famous of Bach’s orchestral suites is the second in B minor, which concludes in the dazzling Badinerie (popularised some years back as Nokia ringtone), scored for flute and string orchestra. Ailie Robertson’s Chaconne has been written as a prelude to this suite, and draws together her background in both classical and Scottish traditional music. Ailie’s chaconne makes use of a repeated harmonic progression, just like eighteenth-century composers such as Bach did.
The last of the four commissions, Stuart MacRae’s Courante is based on a dance form that was developed in the courts of sixteenth-century Italy, before being adopted in in France, and, by Bach’s time, was popular across northern Europe. It involves a series of running and jumping steps, and Stuart’s piece (written as an introduction to Bach’s ebullient Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, which we will be performing last) explores this running in a slow triple metre, heard at a variety of tempi.
Dunedin Consort appears in Prom 71: Bach Night at the BBC Proms 2019 on Wednesday 11 September at 7:30pm