All alone with Bach

Adele Anthony
Intelligencer Journal

Violinist Adele Anthony rehearses in a small studio at the end of a hallway in her Upper East Side home.

In recent weeks, she's spent long hours in that studio, plumbing the intricate depths of Bach's solo music for violin. Because she'll be alone onstage Saturday at Elizabethtown College, readying for this recital is like few other rehearsal experiences in her career. There's no pianist for her to practice with twice a week, no conductor to meet 24 hours before playing a concerto.

No, for this recital, she rehearses alone with the music.

That is, until she's interrupted by a knock on the door and a plaintive demands for "Mommy." The cry comes from Anthony's two-year-old daughter, Ella Mei.

"She's beginning to understand that I can't play with her while I'm rehearsing," Anthony said, laughing softly with an Australian lilt.

She and her husband, violinist Gil Shaham, take turns playing in the studio and playing with Ella Mei and Elijah, 5. Their marriage is something of a fairy tale match made at Juilliard. He's Israeli, she was born on the island of Tasmania. Independently, both of these self-effacing prodigies have earned reputations as formidable violinists, at home in the recital hall or an orchestra stage.

Anthony was just 13 when she won the Australian Broadcasting Corporations' youth music competition. Her winning performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto was broadcast across Australia. She's been revered in her homeland ever since, even after moving to New York in 1987.

Although she's lesser known in the States than her husband, Anthony's professional career is just as impressive on an international scale. She's a leader in the International Sejong Soloists, the global, conductorless string orchestra that will present a concert honoring United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon next month at Carnegie Hall. In classical music CD collections, she's often represented by her very fine 2000 Naxos recording of Phillip Glass's Violin Concerto. She's also recorded works by 20th-century composers Arvo Part and Carl Nielsen.

This season, she's turning back her repertoire 300 years and returning to Bach's six solo sonatas and partitas, works she learned as a girl studying in Tasmania.

"I was very lucky that I learned them at such a young age," Anthony said. "They are works that you need to grow up with."

Her husband's teachers didn't share that philosophy - he was well on his way to stardom before he tackled these landmark works of the violin repertoire. Bach wrote them around 1720, but they weren't published for more than a century. Reviewing the score in 1805, critic J.F. Reichhardt wrote that the pieces represent "perhaps the greatest example in any art of the freedom and certainty with which a great master can move even when he is in chains."

It's unclear what Reichardt meant by "chains," but to listen to the famous Chaconne that closes Partita No. 2 is to hear the foreshadowing of every later musical movement, even though Bach wrote the pieces while on staff at an isolated German court.

"Bach influences a lot of other works," Anthony said. "Playing these sonatas and partitas gives you the groundwork to play 20th-century music."

 She'll perform all six works in a two-recital cycle organized by Gretna Music, the resident chamber series at Elizabethtown college. Saturday she'll play Sonata No. 2 and partitas 2 and 3. On Feb.2, she'll return to perform the remaining three pieces.

Rehearsing has been "cleansing," Anthony said. She's enjoyed reconnecting with the works and subtly changing her interpretation from past performances, picking up the tempo in places and adding slurs in others. This will be her first all-Bach recital, and she's becoming keenly aware of just how taxing the performance might be.

"I'll need to take a little break after the chaconne," she said.

And has she prepared any Bach banter, just as a band might chat up an audience while tuning?

Well, no.

"The music speaks for itself," she said.