It hardly seemed like a place for Bach. The new, 13,000-square-foot venue National Sawdust in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, looks as contemporary as the music it was built to showcase. In the performance hall, black walls peak out in rods behind white triangular sound panels stamped with geometric patterns. They appear like slabs of cake fondant or minimalistic tributes to Star Wars’ Stormtroopers; it’s as if the palette invites performers to supply the color.
National Sawdust opened October 1. A former sawdust factory, the nonprofit venue seems a good fit for a neighborhood that’s seen factories and warehouses yield to artist’s spaces, nightclubs, boutiques, and high-rises. The programming celebrates this newness. It’s included several premieres of commissioned works and festivals celebrating composers John Zorn and Terry Riley.
As violinist Johnny Gandelsman stepped out before packed rows on October 25 to perform Bach’s sonatas for unaccompanied violin, the concert appeared to be a decided glance backward.
He acknowledged this mid-concert. Looking quite Brooklyn in a black long-sleeved V-neck, jeans, beard, and rumpled hair nudged upward, he noted that Bach, also a virtuoso violinist, was an innovator who pushed the instrument’s capabilities. The works, completed in 1720, are loved for their emotive power but known for their sheer technical difficulty; soloists must labor to surmount them.
Gandelsman presented the three sonatas, in G minor, A minor, and C major. He omitted the partitas because he had one hour, he explained, adding that the program highlights the sonatas’ complex fugues. From the first emotive drag of his bow beginning the first sonata’s lyric Adagio—played a bit quicker than usual—Gandelsman offered a clean, sparkling delivery. He has a knack for letting complex phrases, even in more contemplative slower movements, manifest as if effortless. He held the bow with a gentle clutch about two inches north of the frog, imitating shorter Baroque bows, allowing a dexterity that married well with dazzling left-hand precision.
His body language evolved with the music; he started with feet planted squarely, but ultimately dipped into the music, rocking on light toes. Occasionally he swept his body upward, following a splendid bowstroke. In contending with the works’ fearsome double-, triple-, and quadruple-stops, Gandelsman remained precise. Magnifying everything was his demeanor. Between sonatas he spoke with modesty, repeating, “Ah, thank you so much for coming,” as if he was hosting a housewarming and we all just arrived with casseroles.
Many theorize that Bach wrote these works for fun, when he was free to explore secular music. Gandelsman—having a diverse background in the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, a National Sawdust group-in-residence, and the Silk Road Ensemble—seemed to tap into that spirit during rapid passagework, such as in the first sonata’s frenzied Presto and in all fugues. The third sonata’s Fugue breathed joyfully. Gandelsman nicely rendered the tricky middle of the movement, wherein rapid double-stops link the melody and bassline, highlighting Bach’s inventiveness.
He faltered slightly once, when a phone softly buzzed from the audience. Perhaps that, however, demonstrates the acoustics.
Gandelsman ended with a sparkling Allegro Assai in the third sonata. He expertly pivoted his bow to grab the lower bassline melody in a voracious pursuit. The audience responded, stomping their feet afterward.
Ever the charmer, Gandelsman joked before departing, “And now for the partitas.”