Free concert mixes cello music, literary musings

Prairie Lights Books hosts program on Bach

Cellist Steuart Pincombe presents “The Bach Reader” at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City on Saturday. The program combines three Bach cello suites with biographical readings, casting insight into one of the world’s best-known composers.
Cellist Steuart Pincombe presents “The Bach Reader” at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City on Saturday. The program combines three Bach cello suites with biographical readings, casting insight into one of the world’s best-known composers.

IOWA CITY — Steuart Pincombe was feeling pulled in too many directions as he carved out a music career abroad.

So he and his wife moved back to the United States, packed up his cello, a few belongings and their dog, and hit the road in a 1959 travel trailer. They’re more than halfway through a yearlong tour called “Music in Familiar Spaces,” bringing classical music and more to sites from coast to coast.

They’ll be at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St. in Iowa City, at 6 p.m. Saturday for a free, hourlong presentation titled “The Bach Reader.” Pincombe is to play three Bach cello suites, surrounding them with a narrative based on the book, “The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents.”

“You can just tell that he was a genius, by how he was sort of oblivious to some of the normal expectations that people had,” Pincombe said of the 18th century Baroque master, who remains one of the most famous composers of all time.

Even some of the meeting minutes are “very entertaining,” he noted, “where they’re saying, ‘Where’s Mr. Bach?” He had taken a 250-mile walk to hear an organist and his contemporaries didn’t know his whereabouts.

Court minutes open another window to Bach’s world, via disputes over payments and expectations for his work — as well as the time he got into a scuffle with a student.

“The student runs at him with a stick and threatens him,” Pincombe said. “(Bach), in defense, pulls out his dagger, then the student tackles him.” In the concert, that account is paired with what Pincombe called “a very reactionary” piece of music that’s “fast and a little violent.”

Through the scripted, hourlong program, Pincombe wants his listeners to “connect with this special person who is so glorified. Pretty much anybody has heard of Bach in most Western cultures and even beyond that,” he said. “That’s great, but I also want them to see him as just the man that he was. He had a lot of struggles and deep sadness in his life.”

Of Bach’s 20 children, 11 preceded him in death, “which was very common back in those days,” Pincombe said. One of the show’s more poignant moments recounts that he didn’t even know his wife had died and was buried while he was out of town.

“There’s a lot of difficulty in his life — and humor and beauty and joy. I just want people to connect with all these different aspects of another human who did great things. I hope that it will effectively portray that.”

The intimate, comfortable settings of these concerts also help foster conversations afterward — something Pincombe was missing in his formal European concerts.

He and his wife, Michelle, who manages the tour, were living in The Netherlands, but Pincombe was traveling so much he felt like he was missing out on creating a family life with his wife. He also longed for the “house concert” feel of Bach and his contemporaries, who performed in cafes and parlors. “That’s the very idea of chamber music,” Pincombe said.

Once the couple, both 29, decided to spend a year on the road in their homeland, they crowdsourced suggestions for cities and locations. Pincombe still teaches at the summer Credo Chamber Music Festival at his alma mater, the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, where the couple met. Several of his festival students suggested taking the tour to Iowa City.

“They recommended Prairie Lights as a great spot with a great community,” Pincombe said. Operating on a shoestring budget, he and his wife of nearly seven years were “looking for places that already had a strong community” to help spread the word. “We’ve heard great things about this space,” he added.

For most tour concerts, audience members set their own ticket price, to keep the event affordable. Credo finances one free concert per month, and Iowa City is one of those lucky spots.


And since the Pincombes are camping in parks, driveways and big box store lots, they’re also scouting out places to possibly put down roots.

“We’re having fun with it,” he said, “but we’re totally ready to be settled somewhere and ready to have a little more room.”



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