North Coast Journal

Jan. 1995 - THINGS

How tall was Bach?

by Miv Schaaf

Dum dah da da da da dum. The audience tittered in the pause after these first notes of Bach's D Minor Toccata and Fugue - a supporting musician having his three-minute spot of solo glory in the evening's entertainment. He will turn it into something humorous on that ridiculous instrument, an accordion.

Not really an accordion even, kind of a cross between an accordion and a concertina; when you look at it closely it has no keyboard, just buttons. Imagine - Bach on a wheeze box.

Three measures and the titters stop; the audience sits astounded as they hear Bach played with such understanding, such musical sense, such passion as they seldom, if ever, hear Bach.

One of four musicians accompanying the lead singers, he sat at one side, the back of his chair almost touching the stage curtains, as though he might be withdrawn into its dark folds at any minute. He heard the initial titters from the public who expected him to play a simple folk tune.

He heard, but it was as if he didn't hear. He bent his head - a shock of curly red hair and a mustache big enough to be called a mustachio - hunched himself forward and, as if he were all alone in his midnight room, hurled himself into Bach.

It went forward and we went with it, forgetting the cool logic, the measured order; hearing the forward thrust, the whole line, the underlying emotion. It was played by Oleg Goldstein. He felt Bach; he made us feel it, and the audience, here for a light evening's entertainment, threw away its complacency, clapped and whistled as American audiences never do.

The accordionist stood slowly, an uncommonly short man, indeed extending not much above or below his accordion. He nodded his head dazedly, still not quite emerged from his beloved cocoon. We had heard Bach as he heard it, as Bach should be heard.

He was "playing from the solar plexus," as cellist Margaret Rowell says. We've heard singers with beautiful voices who reach our ears but not our hearts; we've heard singers with no voice at all who somehow cut us to the marrow.

Bach was "an unbiased seeker of truth," writes Donald Frances Tovey in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th edition), " to whom it is not the smallest importance whether a thing be new or old as it is true." And what is it Bach gives us that affects us so deeply? Boiled down, it is confidence and joy.

What better season for confidence and joy than Christmas? What better reason than truth? Of course we all have worries weaving through our lives - big or little disasters of health or money, problems in personal or world relationships, disappointments, sadnesses, things we wish we didn't have to think about. They are there, and they will not go away just because it is Christmas.

"Few documents tell a prouder tale of uncomplaining thrift than the inventory of his possessions made after his death," writes Tovey. "Bach was constantly rearranging his own compositions; indeed he evidently regards adaptability to fresh environment as the test of his finest work."

Maybe there is a lesson there for us. Maybe, adapting to fresh environment, with its good and bad aspects, we too can see truth and give out confidence and joy to make this a truly Merry Christmas.

Miv Schaaf, a Fieldbrook resident, wrote a column, Things, twice a week for 15 years for the Los Angeles Times.

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