`Brandenburg' farewell for Kenneth Cooper

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GREAT BARRINGTON - Berkshire Bach's more than 200 performances of the "Brandenburg" concertos, Johann Sebastian writes from the Elysian Fields, "is not only way more than I have ever performed in my lifetime, but probably more than anyone else has ever done."

The Bach Society will notch six more performances Saturday in its annual Bach at New Year's Eve blowout in the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. They'll be the last performances under Kenneth Cooper, the society's music director since its founding 26 years ago and the presiding spirit over all 23 of these New Year's Eve concerts.

 As harpsichordist and conductor with the Berkshire Bach Ensemble, he'll perform the complete set of six "Brandenburgs," but in unconventional sequence. He'll have 22 prominent musicians at his disposal, including violinist Eugene Drucker, a founding member of the Emerson String Quartet.

(Cooper is also, incidentally, the medium for Bach's communiqu from the beyond. The message appears in the program book.)

"The way I figure it, that's a lot of `Brandenburgs,' " Cooper said, switching from telepathy to a phone. "I've enjoyed every single one of them. I've had the most amazing group of players, and we played in wonderful places for terrific audiences, and so forth. I've had a glorious time with this history and with this project and with this music. But it seems to me that it might be time for somebody else. Twenty-six years is plenty, it seems to me, and I think I'm ready to move on."

But, Cooper added, he has made it clear to the board that he'll be available for other Berkshire assignments if he's wanted.

"This is not retirement for me," he declared. "Musicians don't retire, you know. They don't know what else to do."

 Over the years, Cooper has, literally, done the "Brandenburgs" backward and forward in sequence. In other New Year's performances, he has scrambled the sequence and done them in tandem with other works by Bach and other composers. The series will go on under a successor yet to be named. Cooper suggests that the Emerson's Drucker would fit the job well.

This year, the program will start with "Brandenburg" No. 1, then go on to Nos. 6, 5, 4, 2 and 3. As usual, Cooper will do some tinkering — as, he points out, Bach did. In No. 1, Cooper adds timpani, which leads him, by way of Bach's example in one of his cantatas, to add Turkish-band-style tambourines and triangle later on.

As for No. 5, it has to come early in the program because of its big harpsichord cadenza. Any later, he says, the harpsichord will go out of tune.

Cooper, who is nothing if not energetic at a keyboard, is a scholar and teacher as well as performer. Holder of a PhD from Columbia, he is on the faculty there and at the Manhattan School of Music. He has performed with many chamber ensembles, including the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and made close to 100 recordings, recently with violinist Ani Kavafian in Bach's six sonatas for fortepiano and violin.

A striking thing about all this activity is that while Cooper plays early instruments, his fellow musicians — this includes the Berkshire Bach Ensemble — use modern ones. He has a quarrel with the period-instrument movement, which he claims is actually ahistorical.

"One of the most important things to me is who is playing rather than what they're playing on," he says. "The sound doesn't make the piece. The people make the piece." He'd rather have his people "playing on doorknobs than somebody else banging on whatever the so-called correct instruments are."

One of several projects the scholar in him has planned is to create two sonatas that Debussy never lived to write or even sketch.

To be brief about it: Late in life, Debussy planned a set of six sonatas for various instruments. He composed only the first three, but he did leave instructions for the instrumentation of the others. It's Nos. 4 and 5 that Cooper plans to realize by transcribing other Debussy pieces for the instruments Debussy specified.

No. 4 is for oboe, horn and harpsichord. For Cooper, "this combination was really too tempting to resist." The fifth is for trumpet, bassoon clarinet and piano, "which turns out to be a really delicious combination."

The long-range goal: To do all six sonatas, involving a total of 13 instruments, in a single evening.

Cooper sold his Berkshire house last year but counts many friends with whom he and his fellow musicians can stay. And he thanks his players, board, audience, engineers and other supporters for their loyalty.

"A lot of people have been nice to us over the years, and generous," he says, "and we're very grateful that we have had the opportunity to do all this gorgeous music making."


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