, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Shunske Sato, concertmaster since 2013 and artistic director since 2018 of the Netherlands Bach Society. Photo by Dana van Leeuwen.

To find the Weekly Cantata Advent Calendar, please click here.

Several people have asked me what made me start writing for this blog again. The answer is simple: Shunske Sato’s violin playing in the “Mein Verlangen” tenor aria from Cantata 161 Komm, du süsse Todesstunde. I had already heard that Sato was “a good one” from people with authority on the matter, and had enjoyed listening to his recordings, but it took these live concerts to experience the magic that happens when he is a soloist in a Bach aria.

During a visit to my home country, the Netherlands, I attended the Netherlands Bach Society’s “All Souls” concerts on October 31 in the Grote Kerk in Naarden and on November 3 in the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague. I had been unsure how to talk about these concerts in the framework of this blog, especially now that it’s more than a month ago and we’re in Advent already (yes there is Advent music in this post, please keep reading) and there is no recording of these concerts.

Solo sonatas and partitas on All of Bach

But it turns out that this week is the perfect time for a spotlight on Shunske Sato, because this Thursday December 5, 2019, the Netherlands Bach Society will publish the final episode of his series of solo violin sonatas and partitas on All of Bach, their online video archive of Bach performances. Just click on this link and the entire series is right there, under “recently added.”

Sato was appointed concertmaster of the Netherlands Bach Society in 2013, and became their artistic director in June 2018. For the concerts I attended, he was concertmaster only, having invited alto Alex Potter to program and lead this production. (Alex Potter deserves a blog post too, but that will come later). By inviting a different guest director for each program, Sato has breathed fresh air into the he group of musicians I feel.

Instead of the standard biographies, the program booklet featured personal stories from Sato and the four vocal soloists. As a person who’s produced many program books in her lifetime, I felt this was a breath of fresh air too. And as a mom of two teenagers who are finding their way through school and life, I especially liked this part from Sato’s story:

“Things got tricky in my teens: I began spending lots of time away from school playing concerts, and my grades at school were impressively low (except for French and Maths).  Giving up on school, I often spent my weekdays at my favorite bookstore instead and read about history, computer programming and linguistics, and composed string quartets.  Saturdays always came as a relief: classes and lessons at the Juilliard School in New York, where hung out with my “real” friends.”

Playing Weimar style

Back to what happened in the concert in Naarden on October 31. For this entire program, the violinists were playing one-on-a-part, the same way it was probably done in Weimar, where Bach first performed Cantata 161 on the small organ loft in 1716. This meant that Sato was thus the instrumental soloist in the tenor aria “Mein Verlangen,” and with the rest of the ensemble completely in sync with him, he could truly do his own thing.

And then there was light

Shunske Sato in Naarden, October 31, 2019. Photo by Hans van der Woerd, courtesy of The Netherlands Bach Society.

And boy, did he do that! Every time he played the “Mein Verlangen” theme, he stretched the tempo just a little bit, every time slightly differently. It created a halo over the entire aria. Even though the tenor wasn’t singing yet, the text was already there: the longing (“Verlangen”) but also the pure radiance (“reiner Schein”) of the soul and the image of angels. He truly brought light into the music, and also for me personally into my heart and mind. It made all my frustrations and worries melt away, and it made the other instrumentalists play and tenor Thomas Hobbs sing with even more inspiration than they already had in this concert.

“The more I let go, the more I risk, the more I dare to really tell the story”

Witnessing Sato communicate the text of the aria before the singing started, I was immediately reminded of this wonderful interview with him for All of Bach. It is specifically about the “Erbarme dich” aria from the St. Matthew Passion, but his message “The more I let go and the more I risk, the more I dare to really tell the story…” applies just as well to this aria that I saw him play.

I went to the “All Souls” concert again three days later in the beautiful concert venue the Nieuwe Kerk has become. Sato’s playing there was possibly even more moving and the effect on those on stage and in the audience possibly stronger too. Several people had tears in their eyes.

Watch for yourself in this Advent aria

See the “Sato magic” happen in the soprano aria from Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor on All of Bach, with soprano Zsuzsi Tóth. Never did I enjoy a “da capo” this much. To read more about this cantata, the third one Bach wrote (or adapted) for the first Sunday of Advent, read my blog post from 2017 here.

With special thanks to Marloes Biermans and Annelie Bulsing of the Netherlands Bach Society for their generosity in providing photos and copy for me to use,

Wieneke Gorter, December 3, 2019.

To find the Weekly Cantata Advent Calendar, please click here.