A new year, a new chief at Berkshire Bach Society

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GREAT BARRINGTON — What will New Year's Eve be without a "Brandenburg" Concerto?

There'll be champagne and auld lang syne, of course. But for the last 23 years the Berkshire Bach Society has ushered in the new with all or some of Bach's six "Brandenburgs" in its New Year's Eve blast.

This year there's a new music director and a new program, minus "Brandenburgs." Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 1 tops off the evening but much of the program is given over to such composers as Boyce, Purcell, Mozart and Bartok. Conspicuously, there won't be a harpsichord onstage. That's because there won't be Kenneth Cooper onstage. For all 23 years before his retirement, he presided over the celebration as harpsichordist, conductor and music director.

Enter Eugene Drucker, Emerson String Quartet violinist, who at 65 is taking his first plunge into a music directorship. A keyboard instrument will probably return in future programs, he says, but the omission this time around is partly a homage to Cooper, "because he is such a compelling presence onstage and such a musical intellect."

Also: "I thought we should strike out in a different direction and, for the first year at least, not have somebody try to replace him as the keyboard player for the ensemble."

Brought on board by Cooper, Drucker speaks as a veteran of the series. He and his wife, cellist Roberta Cooper [no relation to Kenneth], played in the ensemble for about 20 of his predecessor's 23 years, Drucker frequently as a soloist.                                                                                                                                                      

The program at 6 p.m. on Dec. 31 at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center will employ an instrumental ensemble of 17 chosen by Drucker. He will be the soloist in Mozart's Violin Concerto, K. 219 (the "Turkish"). In other pieces he'll turn the concertmaster's position over to other violinists in the ensemble, just as he and Philip Setzer alternate first and second violin in the Emerson. (Performances in Northampton and Troy, N.Y., will take place on Dec. 30 and New Year's Day, respectively.)                                                                                          

Drucker, who joined in founding the Emerson in 1976, is also a novelist, composer and teacher.                    

"I try to gather various threads of my experience when I'm involved in a new artistic enterprise," he said in a telephone interview. "So I guess on a small scale I've tried to do that here with Berkshire Bach by saying they wanted me to be music director, I appreciate their interest in me and the fact that they like my violin playing, and the fact that I've been involved in so many of the New Year's programs."                                                       

The question was: "What can I bring to the table now as artistic director?"                                                       

The jump from quartets to a mainly baroque repertoire centering on Bach isn't as long as it might seem, he said. He has a "deep affinity" with Bach's music, having performed and recorded, for example, the complete unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for violin.                                                                                               

With the Emerson, he has performed and recorded Bach's "Art of Fugue" and arrangements of fugues from the "Well-Tempered Clavier" — five of them in transcriptions by Mozart. (Three of those will be performed here in further arrangements by Drucker, featuring winds.) The Mozart transcriptions, he said, gave him a chance to view Bach "through the eyes of an equally great genius like Mozart."                                                                 

Drucker's novel is "The Savior," the story of a violinist forced to take part in a Nazi labor-camp experiment. His output as a composer includes settings of Shakespeare — one of them is titled "Madness and the Death of Ophelia" — and poet Denise Levertov, all for voice and string quartet. With the Emerson he performs about 85 concerts a year and is in residence at Stony Brook University. A busy man.                                             

Though he has started on a second novel and has received a request for a quartet without voice, Drucker says all his other activity leaves him with a scarcity of time for creative work. He came to Berkshire Bach "with the understanding that I was trying to experiment, that I may or may not continue for subsequent years."               

"I hadn't thought of myself as a music director type of personality," he says, "but when I look around at some of my colleagues, I see that they do this kind of thing." He names former Emerson cellist David Finckel, who with his wife, pianist Wu Han, runs the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The current cellist, Paul Watkins, is director of the Great Lakes Music Festival.                                                                                                    

But the Bach assignment, Drucker points out, is for one program repeated on three consecutive days, not an entire festival or season. And with Boyce and Purcell — both predating Bach — on the program, he says, "This has been a very intriguing challenge because it has pushed me later into the course of music history."               

Bach lives.


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