Monday, April 10, 2017

J.S. & Me



I have come to Leipzig to pay homage to Johann Sebastian Bach. The train station is spacious and inviting, the kind of architecture designed to uplift and inspire. Once out the doors, I’m dismayed to see a row of restaurants—Burger King, MacDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC. Cognitive and aesthetic dissonance. Why are they here blotting the landscape of a city that has preserved buildings that were here in Bach’s time, not as museum pieces, but as functional spaces that are both practical and beautiful?

I went to St. Thomas’s Church where Bach worked and heard a choir sing—not Bach, but some Gospel-influenced pieces. Outside in the square was an Indian curry restaurant and in the park, two Romanian men playing some remarkable accordion music. The day before I was in Prague eating at a Vietnamese restaurant, hearing a group of Czech musicians on the Charles Bridge playing jazz, another group playing Czech folk music with a cajon, another man with a didjeridoo and a djembe. In the Jewish quarter lay the sad story of an ethnic group discriminated against for some 800 years, from higher taxes to reduced legal rights to banishment to mass murder. At dinner conversations with some Czech friends, the memory of the Communist takeover from Russia still loomed large. And back to Bach. Though born over 300 years ago in Europe, he had come to live in my childhood New Jersey home and keep me company when I played the organ. How did that happen?

So with this as background, I set off to begin an article on International Orff teaching. The world is interconnected and always has been, but how ideas and practices travel and how cultures meet and exchange goods and practices makes all the difference in the world. As an ambassador of this dynamic music education approach, what is my role when teaching in Colombia or Brazil, South Africa or Ghana, Thailand or Korea, Iceland or Slovenia, Turkey or Russia or any of the 35 other countries I’ve had the good fortune to share this work in? Do I come muscling my way in with soldiers or corporate big money, do I open an exotic restaurant off the beaten path, do I sneak Gospel into Bach’s church, do I enlarge the possible conversation with didjeridoos and djembes and jazz? As a guest in a host culture, what gifts do I bring, how do I present them and what is my intention?

Well, I’ll save that for the article. Meanwhile, besides Bach, turns out that Leipzig is also the birthplace of Clara Schumann and Richard Wagner, that Robert (Schumann), Mendelsohn, Telemann and Grieg hung out a bit in Leipzig. Today I drank coffee (which I rarely do) in CafĂ© Baum, the second oldest coffee-house in Europe where the Schumanns gathered with artist friends and discussed whatever it is that artists discuss. I may have been sitting in one of their seats! Isn’t that special!

But it’s J.S. that is my main man and though I didn’t feel any chills up my spine sitting in the church where he worked for the last 27 years of his life, I’m happy to have paid homage to the man who still amazes me with the intricacy and perfection of his musical thought. Next time I tackle the French Suites or the Italian Concerto or the Goldberg Variations, I’ll see if thinking of Leipzig inspires me.

And a word to this lovely city: Lose the damn Burger Kings!!

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