A man for all musical seasons

Famed conductor Joshua Rifkin to wield baton for Bach in Jerusalem Festival

JOSHUA RIFKIN: ‘I have spent a lot of time with Bach over the years.’  (photo credit: JORIS JAN BOS)
JOSHUA RIFKIN: ‘I have spent a lot of time with Bach over the years.’
(photo credit: JORIS JAN BOS)
Classical music aficionados have their preferences, just like in any other area of the expansive musical domain. I know someone who says he is perfectly happy to listen to any work of classical music, as long as it was written by Mozart. Then again, if there is any overriding standpoint in the field, the majority would profess – at the very least – to a liking for the works by Johann Sebastian Bach. That may be due to the wonderfully crafted melodies, the trademark contrapuntal lines or the definitively emotive scores, but Bach appears to appeal to most.
Joshua Rifkin embraces all of that with gusto. The 74-year-old New York-born Boston-based conductor will head this way – and not for the first time – to wield his baton over the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra (JBO). The composition in question is St. John Passion, the sumptuous oratorio that has been performed to appreciative audiences all over the world for three centuries.
The work forms the centerpiece of this year’s Bach in Jerusalem Festival, whose titular location notwithstanding, features concerts around the country, including at the Elma Arts Complex in Zichron Ya’acov, the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv, the Beersheba Conservatory and the JBO’s home base of the YMCA in Jerusalem. Rifkin will present the peerless Bach score at all the above venues, with the vocalist lineup featuring Israeli soprano Keren Motseri, compatriot alto Avital Dery, German tenor Richard Resch and Canadian baritone.
The fourth edition of the annual festival runs from March 22 to March 26, and includes performances of orchestral and chamber music, vocal and instrumental works, recitals, a Bach Purim show for children, an international symposium, an exhibition from the Bach House from Eisenach, Germany, and various other events associated with Bach and his Baroque Era contemporaries.
Rifkin has a long association with Bach’s works, some of which he has performed in past years, together with the JBO, including St. Matthew Passion in 2016. “I have spent a lot of time with Bach over the years,” he says. “You could say I have a strong connection there.”
The conductor-keyboardist says that he is drawn to the trailblazing Baroque composer for all sorts of reasons. “I think, perhaps, there are three things about Bach’s work. The combination of brilliantly rigorous structure, combined with a very powerful expressive ambiance, and a very communicative way of being. And there is a constant sense of invention. There is a constant pushing of the curve.” Rifkin believes that you have to stay on your toes if you want to get to grips with the charts. “Bach always does something very surprising, something very arresting. I want to emphasize that, because people talk so much about the structure, and about the discipline, and that of course is true. His music is remarkably wrought. Yet, it is also fantastically vivid, almost every moment you find different things. You find yourself wondering, how did he think of that? How did he do that?” Even after decades of performing and recording Bach’s music, Rifkin remains well and truly hooked. “That drew me into him and keeps me there,” he declared.
With that in mind, perhaps it is no wonder that Bach has often been touted as “the first jazz musician.” “There is truth to that,” Rifkin concurs, “given the underlying rhythmic regularity and, again, the constant flashes of brilliance.” Sounds like a regular jazz setup alright, somewhat akin to the sidemen keeping the thematic substratum in place while one of their number goes AWOL on some searching solo.
Rifkin has more than dabbled in contemporary improvisational sounds himself. “I grew up with jazz,” he says. “Certainly, early jazz remains something for which I have a tremendous affection.” Around 40 years ago, he gained a lofty public profile when he played a pivotal role in the ragtime revival of the 1970s, playing piano on three albums of Scott Joplin’s works that attracted much attention, and generated impressive sales figures.
THE ABILITY to embrace diverging avenues of thought and creation is a common denominator between the conductor and composer. Rifkin’s bio also features some gigs that you would not normally associate with someone who spends the vast majority of his time delving into the intricacies of classical works. Back in the 1960s, Rifkin created arrangements for Canadian folk-pop singer Judy Collins, and there was even a performance slot with the delightfully-named Even Dozen Jug Band. Add to that some Bach-esque reworkings of a bunch of Beatles numbers and you get the eclectic picture.
Rifkin notes happily that things have changed for the better in the interim, with increasing numbers of his co-professionals adopting a more liberal stance on how to present works of yesteryear, and happy to dip into a range of genres and styles. “I think that was the common lesson when I was growing up. The interesting thing is that, as time has gone on, what I might have represented is much more widespread these days. It’s not at all unusual, now, for so-called classical musicians to have a broad spectrum of musical interests, and even musical activities. I know quite a few people today whose work hops over what people consider boundaries.
Maybe I was just lucky to get in on that thing, or set of things, somewhat earlier.” Rifkin is nothing if not modest, and goes along with the seemingly simplistic notion that “music is just music”, in other words, devoid of pigeonholing. “Duke Ellington described the best music as beyond a category. That’s very true.” The iconic jazz composer, pianist and band leader also noted that there are two kinds of music – good music and the other kind. While that surely doesn’t suit a sweeping Bach analogy, one can appreciate why the Baroque composer attracts across the board adulation.
Over the years Bach’s opulent choral works have been performed by esteemed large vocal ensembles. However, Rifkin begs to differ in terms of the voluminous personnel approach. In the early 1980s, the American conductor went against prevailing wisdom by arguing that many of Bach’s choral works were intended to be performed with just a single vocalist in each role. That notion ruffled quite a few feathers, although Rifkin did find some support from the likes of British conductor Andrew Parrott, himself a frequent visitor to these shores.
Rifkin plays down his revolutionary role. He believes there is nothing new in his approach, and in fact, it is all there in black and white. “These aren’t my ideas. They are really Bach’s ideas. Anybody who goes to Bach’s manuscripts, and studies documents of the time, will quickly realize that Bach did things in a way that we were not accustomed to. I suppose, really, the main thing I have done is to put that into effect.”
It is not just a matter of being faithful to the source. There are artistic benefits too. “I find the result so much more pleasing and gratifying, really so much better,” Rifkin notes. “I have kept doing it, and several more musicians have joined me in this, so I think the feathers are much less ruffled now,” he chuckles. ”There are always some people who like to bristle, but that is not important. There are always people protecting this or that little bit of terrain, but that’s alright too. But, in this one, it’s pretty obvious to anybody that takes the trouble to look at the evidence, and musically, I think it’s so much richer.”
Any conductor brings their individual understanding to the work in question, while hopefully affording respect to the composer’s original intent, if that is possible. Rifkin rigorously upholds that tenet, while maintaining a delicate balancing act between the source material, and the here and now. “I really am always trying to ask what does the work ask of me, and what did the composer who made the work ask of me. It’s not that I am reverent towards composers or works. In fact it’s a kind of active partnership. I have my ideas and I have my things to say. I am interested in what Bach, or other composers, or St. John Passion have to say. I perform Stravinsky no differently from how I perform Bach. Any performance that I do, or that any of us do today, belongs to this time. We are not trying to travel back in time. We are seeing what’s the richest access to the music that we can establish in our time.”
For tickets and more information: (02_671-5888, www.bravo.org.il and www.jbo.co.il.