Last Friday evening, cellist Frederick Edelen took the stage in a crowded Studzinski Recital Hall to perform the first installment in a series of concerts, highlighting the six unaccompanied suites for cello written by famed Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The event, entitled “Bach in Context I,” featured Bach’s first and second suites alongside other pieces that shaped the composer’s early career.
Throughout his performance, Edelen interspersed the program with descriptions of how each piece played into the development of Bach’s career. In particular, Edelen focused on music written early in Bach’s life that expanded the repertoire available for the cello, such as Domenico Gabrielli’s “Ricercar No. 6.”
“A ricercar means ‘to look for’ or ‘to seek,’ and what he was doing, I imagine, was sitting down with his instrument and seeing what he could do,” Edelen said.
Aside from pieces by Gabrielli, Edelen treated the audience to a sampling of music from several other composers, giving context for the themes and ideas found in Bach’s suites.
“You can hear that Bach’s suites weren’t created in a vacuum. The groundwork was laid for the development of the cello as a solo instrument,” Edelen said.
When it came to performing the suites themselves, Edelen’s interest, not only in the music, but also in the underlying factors playing into its composition was palpable. Introducing Bach’s second suite, Edelen laid out the imagery created by the piece.
“You’ll hear the resonance of the low bass notes, and what Bach can do with that is use them like pillars of a cathedral to support these beautiful, long, arching melodies,” Edelen said. “You get these wonderful, long phrases that draw you forward, as a listener, into the story … it will speak for itself.”
To finish the concert, Edelen performed two more recently composed pieces that draw inspiration from the themes of Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello. While describing the similar tonality between the concert’s final piece, a work by Spanish cellist and composer Gaspar Cassadó, and that of Bach, Edelen highlighted Bach’s influence on later compositions.
“[Cassadó] also owes a lot to Johann Sebastian Bach,” Edelen said.
While Edelen now performs primarily as a solo cellist, he played in Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra from 2003 until 2022 and, before that, for the San Antonio and Houston symphonies. He also performs with his wife, harpsichordist Christina Scott Edelen, as Duo Edelen.
Edelen’s performance drew an audience made up of both students and community members. Ellie Schofield ’24 has been attending guest performances like Edelen’s since her sophomore year.
“I just really enjoy seeing all the visiting artists and getting an alternative experience in the music department,” Schofield said. “I’m a music minor, so part of my learning is experiencing music.”
Schofield was especially captivated by Edelen’s infectious love for the cello.
“I was paying attention especially to [Edelen’s] performance technique, and just the way he was into the music he was playing was unlike anything I’ve seen here before,” Schofield said. “How moved he was by the music made the performance more engaging.”
Edelen will return to Bowdoin to perform the next installment of his concert series, entitled “Bach in Context: Tetrachord,” on Friday, April 12, at 7:30 p.m. in Studzinski Recital Hall.