The fiftieth annual Bach Week Festival, the 2023 Golden Season, concluded May 14th, 2023 with a stunning presentation by master pianist Sergei Babayan at Evanston’s Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston. The appearance of Babayan, unquestionably one of the leading pianists of his time-and of any era- was sponsored by the Howard S. Dubin Family Foundation.
On the antique stage, the Steinway and Sons Grand gleamed under the soaring white “gingerbread” proscenium while the translucent stained-glass windows on both sides cast down muted afternoon light. Once Babayan’s remarkably dexterous fingers began the Feruccio Busoni transcription of the Chaconne from Partita in D minor for solo violin (BWV 1004), he absorbed the light and, as described by festival Music Director Richard Webster, “He is transported and gleams with the love of music”.
The Chaconne has been described by violinist Joshua Bell as “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history.” The sense of the great Chaconne is consonant with the well-expressed descriptions of Babayan’s deep emotional intensity, understanding and insight, spiritually powerful and packed with vibrant color. This reviewer sat behind the Dubin family members, and at the conclusion of this piece, from the next row behind, a patron sighed “He is a genius”; Le Devoir from Montreal has said the same.
Immediately following, Babayan poured forth the approximately 80-minute so-called Goldberg Variations (BWV 988, 1741), a composition for keyboard consisting of an aria, 30 variations, and a return to the aria. The piece has long been regarded as “the most serious and ambitious work for keyboard”. Played- as was the Chaconne before it- without a score, it displayed both J.S. Bach’s “exceptional knowledge of the many different styles of music of his day” and served as a showpiece for the deep passion of Babayan and the monumental range and delicacy of his interpretation and fingering.
Speaking with the great pianist after the Hall cleared of his many admirers, he explained to me that the piece was originally composed for 2 keyboards- double harpsichord- and how both hands must continuously stretch and cross over and under to achieve the effects on a single keyboard. Having noticed that Babayan keeps his strong straight torso facing forward during playing while his leonine head is canted slightly to the left, I facetiously mentioned I had read that angels are said to appear over one’s left shoulder. Sergei demurred, “I don’t know about angels, but there are many decisions that must be made by the pianist, and the audience is on the right”. He mused, “When one interprets Bach and gets it right, one is placed in spiritual, metaphysical and physical equilibrium”. He laughed lightly, “Maybe there are angels”. Webster was more emphatic; “Sergei is filled with angels”.
Webster, who has been with the Bach Festival since 1974, has himself had an illustrious career, at St. Luke’s Church in Evanston, at Trinity Church in Boston, as a freelance composer and conductor. He shared with me that he “felt called at 14 to devote his life to sacred music”. When I asked “Why Bach?”, he waxed eloquent, “Bach is the lodestar and the wellspring- he is the greatest composer who ever lived and the inspiration for every composer-every musician-who has followed since”. I repeated his words to Sergei Babayan, “Is Bach the lodestar and the wellspring?” He turned to me, “Bach is the fount”.