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Mixing Bach and improvisation, Juliana Soltis makes classical music different every time she performs

Cellist and historical performance specialist Juliana Soltis uses improvisation when she plays classical music.
Cellist and historical performance specialist Juliana Soltis uses improvisation when she plays classical music. (TeresaTam/Teresa Tam Studio)

When was the last time you went to a concert of classical music and heard something that was made up on the spot?

Unless you’ve sought out (or created) such experiences, the answer is probably never.

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Why is that? Cellist and historical performance specialist Juliana Soltis found herself asking that question one day while practicing music by J.S. Bach. She started improvising on the repeats — and it sounded pretty good.

She thought, “Too bad I can’t do that in real life.” But why not?

From there, “I started thinking about everything I’d learned about Bach [and] historical performance. I realized that there was no good reason, either from a historical or artistic perspective, why you wouldn’t ornament Bach’s music.”

Three years later, Soltis is on the brink of releasing an album inspired by that moment. “Going Off Script: The Ornamented Suites for Cello” releases on September 10. The same day, Soltis kicks off a U.S. tour of that album at the Creative Alliance.

Soltis will perform Suites No. 1 and 6. The prelude from Suite No. 1 is perhaps the most recognizable piece of solo cello music — but listeners will have the opportunity to hear it played on a five-string piccolo cello, [the instrument for which Bach originally intended his suites.] That, and Soltis will be adding her own embellishments.

While some musicians may balk at the idea of revising J.S. Bach’s music, Soltis holds that Bach would have wanted performers to improvise on his music, as it was in keeping with performance practices of his day.

“Sources abound,” said Soltis. “There are so many examples of composers, critics, commentators, friends and family writing each other letters and talking about the phenomenon of ornamentation of music in this period.”

Bach himself, as a church organist, improvised during services. “We know that Bach is operating in a musical culture where music isn’t complete without improvisation added by the performer,” said Soltis. “The act of composition isn’t done until [there is] an audience or congregation, and the performer finishes composing the work in the moment.”

However, today’s classical musicians are, more often than not, taught that their value as a performer lies in recreating the music of another after long hours of practice, rather than in implementing their own ideas into a performance.

Having grown up in that culture, Soltis said that developing improvisatory skills starts with an adjustment of mind.

“You have to somehow separate yourself from everything that you think you know and stop operating from the assumption, ‘Okay, this is what I’ve always done, and this is how it goes,’” she said. “Say, ‘What’s here to discover?’ Once you switch gears like that in our brain, things naturally start to come.”

While practicing the suites, Soltis would play through the movements a few times and try to determine what her tendencies were. “I might add a quick downward scale or some divisions, or any little twists and turns to add interest or draw attention to a moment that feels special,” she said.

She strove to maintain that attitude of discovery while recording her album. Rather than fix an ornamentation into a movement, she allowed herself to record multiple versions of a performance.

Her live performances operate the same way: Soltis doesn’t know how much, or in what way, she’ll depart from the written music until she’s onstage.

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“It’s risky, for sure, but I think it’s very exciting,” she said. Moreover, the point of such performances aren’t to stray as far away from Bach’s music as possible. Rather, they’re meant to imbue the experience with a sense of discovery — and, perhaps, ephemerality, something which Soltis pointed out is in short supply in a digital culture where recordings abound.

For the audience, she said, “There’s hopefully never … a feeling that I’m too rehearsed. And more a feeling that when they’re coming to a performance, they’re getting something special and singular. And that there’s a reason they’re with me in that moment. It’s wonderful to share that.”

If you go:

Juliana Soltis performs at the Creative Alliance on Sept. 10 at 7:00 p.m. Ticket prices range from $6.25 for children to $25 for general admission.

Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for the Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions.

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