By Lawrence Budmen

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1759) is one of the great monuments of Western culture. While Bach's organ, choral and orchestral works have become part of the standard performing repertoire, his solo keyboard works are not programmed as frequently. (Even the great "Goldberg Variations" are more admired than performed.) Two of the master's greatest works for solo harpsichord held center stage on March 8 at the intimate Founder' Hall at First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables when the Miami Bach Society's Tropical Baroque Music Festival presented Miami's cultural Renaissance man Frank Cooper in a recital spotlighting "The Two Sides of the Atlantic in the Eighteenth Century." 

Bach's "Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue," BWV 903 and 903a is startlingly modern in its chromaticism and wide harmonic spectrum. That the wildly flamboyant and inventive Fantasy could have been composed for the harpsichord is remarkable. Only a genius could have penned this astounding work! The Fugue is one of Bach's most intricate contrapuntal works. The sheer creativity of this remarkable music continues to astonish almost three centuries after its creation. Cooper gave a brilliant realization of this landmark score. His approach was the antithesis of period instrument, early music specialists. He played the score with tremendous freedom and imagination - meeting every technical hurdle and truly commanding the harpsichord. What a wonderful instrument this early keyboard can be in the hands of a master!

No less impressive was Cooper's traversal of Bach's "Aria with Variations in the Italian Manner," BWV 989. In this work (unique in the Bach canon) a grave aria is embellished in a series of florid, almost operatic variations. The sheer variety and beauty of Bach's invention is marvelous. Cooper gave a stunning performance of the score's fast sections and brought aching poignancy to the aria - particularly in its final, solemn repetition.

Bach was preceded by the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757). Piano virtuosos from Vladimir Horowitz to such controversial artists as Ivo Pogorelich and Mikhail Pletnev have performed these scores so frequently on the modern keyboard that it was a real musical treat to hear them played on the instrument for which they were originally written. Cooper did not disappoint. He produced the most delicate, subtle sounds from his instrument - a Flemish Double-Manuel Harpsichord after Dulcken. He imbued the Scarlatti B-flat Major Sonata with surprising emotional power. Cooper's lively, zesty rendition of the C Major Sonata had the appropriate dance like vigor. He played the Sonata in D Minor with stately grace. Cooper vividly evoked the echo effects of the G Major Sonata - realized with tremendous vigor and precision. The principal thematic material of this work bears a remarkable similarity to the main theme of Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto No.3." 

In the concert's second half Cooper turned to 18th century Americana. "The Anacreontic Song" turned out to be the melody of the "Star Spangled Banner" - played by Cooper in the Baroque manner on the harpsichord. Utterly delightful! Two of the "Dances from Mount Vernon" ("Minuet in A Major" and "Gavotte in C Major") by Jonathan Battishill were graceful, courtly vignettes. William Brown's "Allegro in F Major" illustrated the problems Colonial composers faced in emulating their European colleagues. This derivative work seems to be a poor copy of something more lively and original. Charles Horn's "Funeral March for George Washington" (part of a larger vocal-choral-orchestral cantata) has a certain emotional fervor that moves the listener. Cooper concluded with James Hewitt's "The Battle of Trenton" - one of the few programmatic pieces written for the harpsichord. While much of this overly ambitious score (conceived for home performance) sounds like silent movie music of the mediocre variety, the March for George Washington is effective and the section in which the Colonial Army mourns the loss of their comrades is surprisingly moving. Cooper gave a kaleidoscopic performance of this harpsichord showpiece. A fascinating look at America's early music!

The music of Bach continues to speak through the centuries. Frank Cooper's masterful performances and his enlightened, wry commentary produced a delightful, festive evening that traversed the highways and byways of 18th century music. 

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