Sandra Wong made a bold claim as she held the elaborate wooden instrument, an alien-looking contraption with 16 strings and a dense thicket of white keys: "Personally, I think if Bach had known about the nyckelharpa, he would have written unaccompanied sonatas for it," Wong told the small crowd gathered Nov. 21 in the Armory Cultural Center in Brighton.
Wong immediately backed up her theory with a solo rendition of a Bach sonata on her chromatic nyckelharpa, a Swedish instrument first developed in the 14th century. She used a bow to coax the dizzying melodies from the instrument's long row of strings, lending the material a feel that seemed much more folksy than classical.
Along with guitarist Grant Gordy, banjo player Jayme Stone, bassist Greg Garrison and cellist Charles Lee, Wong offered a new take on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach during the performance, appropriately titled "The Bach Project." During the two-hour show, the Colorado Musicians' Consortium members tackled some of the 18th-century composer's most challenging work in a novel way, reinterpreting Bach's sonatas, fugues and variations as folk dances and acoustic flights.
Along with Wong's interpretations on the nyckelharpa, the performance featured Bach adapted for all of the acoustic instruments present. Players like Gordy and Garrison, both of whom have built a reputation in local jam and bluegrass circles, offered stringed interpretations rooted in American and European folk traditions. Stone, meanwhile, delivered careful, note-for-note interpretations of Bach's flights on the banjo, an instrument that showed a new dimension of the composer's work.
In a duet of Bach's Goldberg Variations on the guitar and banjo, for example, both Gordy and Stone offered a dynamic, energetic take on the material. With Grant's flatpicking in the dropped C sharp tuning and Stones flurries of notes high on the neck, the material sounded as if it could have come from folk dance festival from some tiny European village hundreds of years ago.
It was a dynamic echoed in the group's non-Bach selections. In addition to tunes from Stone's album "Room of Wonders," the ensembled offered a selection of traditional folk songs from around the world.
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The group's offering of Bulgarian folk dances, for example, fused odd time signatures and rounds of syncopation, violin turns from Wong that sounded straight out of the Klezmer tradition and rhythmic pushes that were downright Gypsy in structure.
But the music of Bach remained the constant theme, the unifying element of the night. For all the novelty of the interpretation and the instrumentation, the biggest draw of the performance was in Bach's durable genius. It's a brilliance that can translate into music from a full orchestra, or in music from a rare instrument from the 14th century that boasts only 10,000 players around the world.