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Min-Young Kim and Variant 6 bring passion and precision to their bold take on Bach's Chaconne

Violinist Min-Young Kim, center, at WRTI with members of Variant 6 (left to right): Rebecca Myers, Elisa Sutherland, Steven Bradshaw, Daniel Schwartz.
Violinist Min-Young Kim, center, at WRTI with members of Variant 6 (left to right): Rebecca Myers, Elisa Sutherland, Steven Bradshaw, Daniel Schwartz.

For classical violinists, three things in life are certain: death, taxes, and Bach’s Chaconne in D minor. Since its creation, the piece has stood at the center of the instrument’s repertoire, like a molten core radiating heat. Even fiddlers who studiously avoid playing it can’t escape its permeating influence.

The Chaconne — which Bach wrote to conclude his Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1002 — presents a gauntlet of imposing technical and interpretive challenges. Those who surmount them, says violinist Min-Young Kim, are rewarded by the Chaconne’s ample aesthetic possibilities. “It’s extremely fulfilling,” she says. “It’s the kind of work that you practice for your entire life and never feel like you’ve mastered.”

When Kim visited WRTI’s performance studio in February, she brought a version of the Chaconne layered with a complex twist: an arrangement accompanied by four singers, members of the Philadelphia vocal ensemble Variant 6.

The group’s reconception of the Chaconne is grounded in a controversial theory by the German musicologist Helga Thoene. Late in the spring of 1720, Bach left his home in the German town of Cöthen to join his employer, Prince Leopold, for a retreat in the spa town of Carlsbad. He returned to Cöthen two months later to shocking news: while he was away, Maria Barbara, his wife and the mother of their four children, had suddenly fallen ill and died. Bach missed her burial by a matter of days.

Thoene posits that Bach poured his grief into the Chaconne, intending it as a musical memorial. The piece’s harmonic structure, she suggests, is imbued with immensely personal yet hidden meaning — encoded in a sequence of chorales, hymns set in four part-harmony, that Bach had previously composed. As the piece progresses, the chorale texts frame a redemptive narrative arc, following his despair at Maria’s death to her ascent into heaven.

Although Thoene’s ideas remain hotly contested among Bach scholars, Kim and the four singers of Variant 6 — soprano Rebecca Myers, mezzo Elisa Sutherland, tenor Steven Bradshaw, and bass Daniel Schwartz — manifest them with undeniable credence, poignancy and power.

The Chaconne’s opening section is underpinned by the doleful chorale Christ lag in Todesbanden (“Christ Lay in Death’s Bonds”), a hymn typically associated with Easter, dotted by vivid metaphors depicting Christ’s suffering for humanity’s sins. The singers trade the chorale’s lines with careful economy, methodically grafting them onto Kim’s vibrantly meandering passagework. Eventually they cascade towards a cathartic yet mathematically precise moment of release: a final, descending cadence on the word “Hallelujah.”

For Kim, the Chaconne’s emotional potency derives from its sense of repetition: “On the one hand, it’s extremely simple. It’s a set of variations. On the other hand, Bach is able to do so much with the same core progression for roughly 12 to 15 minutes. It never feels repetitive and yet it’s just a series of repetitions.”

Bradshaw concurs: “You can listen to the same bars of Bach over and over and over again,” he says, “and always find something in it that blows your mind.”

Despite the Chaconne’s solemnity, this collaboration originated with a serendipitous encounter between Kim and Myers, Variant 6’s soprano, at the Clark Park Farmers Market in West Philadelphia. As they got reacquainted, Kim, who had worked with Myers years before, asked if she was aware of Thoene’s unique arrangement of the Chaconne. “I had not heard it,” recounts Myers. “But it was a nice fall day and I was walking over the South Street Bridge from West Philly to Center City. I listened to the whole thing and I thought, ‘We have to do this! This is 100 percent something our audience would love, and a collaboration would mean a lot to me.’”

For Kim, this rendition of the Chaconne represents a calling. “This version allows me to collaborate and make this piece come alive with other people. At heart, I’m a chamber musician. I think that’s where I feel most at home.” Meshing with Variant 6 requires particular focus, she adds. “Essentially, I try to sing on the violin. I’m trying to make my instrument vibrate and resonate the same way that their human voices are when they’re singing. I kind of ride on the resonance of their voices, which is fantastic.”

Violinist Min-Young Kim with Steven Bradshaw and Daniel Schwartz of Variant 6, at WRTI.
Violinist Min-Young Kim with Steven Bradshaw and Daniel Schwartz of Variant 6, at WRTI.

Kim’s observation is echoed by Schwartz, Variant 6’s bass: “This collaboration opens up our minds and forces us to open our ears as well. We have to think about the timing of Min’s instrument, the timbre of her instrument, and shift what we do.”

Attentive listening, close reading of text, and spirited dialogue are all core values of Variant 6, whose members met while singing together in Philadelphia’s Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble The Crossing. Sutherland, who with Myers is the ensemble’s co-artistic director, says there’s something “irrepressible” about how Variant 6 achieves consensus. “Everyone is going to have an opinion about something, and we’re probably going to spend 15 minutes discussing it. That’s just the way it is with us, but when you come into accord it feels really fantastic.”

Even 338 years after his birth, Bach continues to push musicians like these to plumb the depths of their technical abilities and artistic souls. “Bach is the great channeler,” says Bradshaw, his voice filled with awe. “We come and bring our thing to it, but it’s so robust. There’s so much room to play and so much room to pull it apart and interpret it in different ways. It has a sacred place in our lives.”

Zev is thrilled to be WRTI’s classical program director, where he hopes to steward and grow the station’s tremendous legacy on the airwaves of Greater Philadelphia.