St. Mary’s Chapel was filled to capacity by the time Peter Watchorn sat down to play Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Music students, faculty, and fans alike packed every pew, with additional attendees either sitting hunched in the aisles or standing crammed together at the back of the chapel, all craning their necks for a glimpse of the virtuoso pianist performing before them.
The Goldberg Variations are a masterclass in technical brilliance and compositional excellence, each variation building and interweaving on the last to create a whole that is both always in flux yet bound together by a central theme. The performance as a whole is incredibly melodic without becoming redundant, making the hour and a half sitting on the floor of St. Mary’s Chapel well worth one’s time.
Watchorn opened with a heartfelt dedication to Gregory Miller who, per the event program, “inspired, supported and encouraged [his] quest to perform and record the complete harpsichord works of J. S. Bach over a period of thirty-one years.” Watchorn’s admiration for Bach and desire to honor his friend’s memory was apparent in the passion of his performance, and the audience responded with their undivided attention.
The performance itself was impressive, yet held different significance for all in attendance. Some of the music students were aggressively scribbling in their notebooks with every twist and turn of Watchorn’s fingers while the rest of the audience simply wondered why the “piano” (which was actually a harpsichord) had two “rows” of keys instead of one.
Following intermission, the performance continued, with the two keyboard melodies interplaying harmoniously, the variations continuing to build on one another. It sounded as if two world-class musicians were having a duel of pianos, which made it all the more impressive when you looked up and saw Watchorn sitting unassumingly on the bench, his hands flying in all directions while not missing a note.
Although Watchorn’s performance was the focal point, St. Mary’s Chapel created the perfect ambience for the baroque classics to fully embed themselves in the mind of the listener. Many people closed their eyes, fully immersing themselves in the sounds. Others looked around, admiring the architecture and stained glass and perhaps imagining hearing Bach perform in a church similar to St. Mary’s Chapel hundreds of years ago.
As soon as Watchorn stopped playing, the crowd erupted and rose to their feet, a long standing ovation given in a place normally reserved for quiet approval, which is a testament to the success of Watchorn’s ability to connect with his audience. The event’s festivities, however, were not over, as Watchorn announced it was the birthday of one of the Jesuit priests living at St. Mary’s. He proceeded to play one of the most technically sound and sophisticated versions of “Happy Birthday” you will ever hear.
All in all, the concert was an enjoyable affair for all in attendance who were able to take a couple hours out of their Thursday night to appreciate the lifelong work and talent of a great musician. As a reward for attentive listening, or more likely as an act of formality, the concert ended on a sweet note with apple cider and cannolis served at the exit of the chapel.
Featured Image by Matt Paliotta