Q&A with Randolph Bowman
by Kayla Moore
What role does the flute play in Brandenburg 5?
For me, listening to (or performing) Bach’s highly contrapuntal compositions always conjures up the image of a lively, emotional conversation between two or three (or up to six) people. There is always a sense of repartee, of sometimes bragging or reacting passively, maybe even aggressively, to the emotional tenor of the conversation. This certainly is the case in the fifth Brandenburg Concerto. The three protagonists in this story each possess a distinct voice, owing to the radically different means of tone production. The flute in Bach’s time was characterized by its relatively soft and delicate tone. It was most often used by composers to express the more tender emotions or to give the music a pastoral feel (particularly when bird calls were needed). One could possibly assign genders to the three voices involved in Brandenburg 5—this would probably make the flute the feminine element of the story.
What story does it tell?
As for the story itself, perhaps the imaginative listener can picture this scenario: A large boisterous crowd at one of the beer halls Bach is known to have frequented—we listen in on the conversation of three people at a table. Statements are tossed back and forth, sometimes with rude interruptions and other times with a pause to contemplate the others’ thoughts. Eventually, the flute and violin decide to agree and quiet down, finally giving the harpsichordist a chance to express his rather elaborate assessment of the conversation in an extended cadenza. Another round of beer is ordered and we move on to the second movement. The crowd noise disappears into the background (this is where it’s just the three solo instruments) and the mood of the three turns somber and dark. There are occasional moments of optimism, but the prevailing sense of despair is hard to shake off...that is, until the violin decides it is time to leave cares behind and just dance a Gigue, which begins the third movement. The crowd joins in and the evening ends with high “spirits” all around.
This is, of course, probably not exactly what Bach had in mind while composing the concerto, but I have always found it helpful to have some sort of imagery in mind when interpreting a piece of music.
What might symphony-goers not know about you?
Perhaps this mental imagery stems from my original plan in life, which was to become a visual artist. Coming from a family of artists, it seemed like my most natural course; but as any musician will tell you, we feel the music in terms of shapes and colors in addition to the technical aspects—more or less combining multiple art forms.