Bach to the Future

Cellist brings Bach and more to University Park for a socially distant performance

Eric Alterman sits down in a chair on the stage of University Park’s outdoor theater with a cello. It’s the fourth outdoor concert in a row he’s done since the pandemic snuffed every gathering. More than 20 concertgoers are in the stands and on the grassy hill, braving the Sunday evening heat to once again hear live music.  

As Alterman begins to bow the arpeggios to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, the sounds of the park become a part of the performance — from the clinking of a nearby dominoes game to the whirring of traffic. 

After months of quarantine, Alterman hosted four concerts at University Park, breaking the pandemic hiatus for performers and concertgoers. His July 23-26 concerts included Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, a six-part cello suite he composed in April and other well-known pieces such as Mark Summer’s “Julie-O.”

Alterman is the assistant principal cellist for the Eugene Symphony and member of the Delgani String Quartet, so before COVID-19 hit, his schedule was packed. 

But when concert halls closed down, it hit his practice routine. He says he’d go a few weeks or a month without practicing, making him feel out of shape. One warm day in May, at a time when he couldn’t practice inside his apartment because of the noise, he decided to take the cello outside.  

 “Some people walking by gathered — well spaced out. So it kind of got me thinking, ‘I have to keep doing this.’”  

Months later, Alterman had a string of shows at University Park in south Eugene, which also served as a debut for his own Cello Suite No. 1. The suite bears a lot of resemblance to Bach’s universally known Cello Suite No. 1, which isn’t by accident, he says. 

“I’ve been playing those pieces kind of constantly for years,” he says. “I feel like they’re really ingrained, so that influence is strong. It sort of soon became clear that I was going to try and do each one of the movements that Bach uses.” 

He adds that he’s not aware of any other cello suite that follows the Bach form. 

But the suite has musical elements that wouldn’t be found in Bach’s period. Alterman says that in the prelude section, for example, he incorporated an unconventional time signature that Bach wouldn’t have used (5/4 time), as well as sudden key changes and harmonic dissonances that are found in contemporary music. 

And in one of the sections where Bach would use a dance form like minuet or bourée, Alterman looked to the Brazilian shoro. Alterman lived in Brazil and performed in the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra, so implementing the country’s dance form makes the suite more personal than just a total follow of Bach. 

Alterman is still fine-tuning the cello suite composition. He says he plans to record it later this year, and on the record he’ll pair it with Bach’s. 

Since COVID-19 isn’t on the decline in the U.S. or in Oregon, social distancing measures will likely continue to put concerts on pause. But Alterman says he’s considering another outdoor concert with a different set list, and there’s the chance that the show could go on for Delgani String Quartet’s upcoming season. 

“I hope with the warm weather that music can start getting out there again. That’s what I was trying to do,” he says. “It was just as valuable for me, too, so it was really an experience of sharing music with people.”

Visit to contact him and stay updated on his schedule. 

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