COURTESY VINCENT SOYEZVirtuoso Dan Tepfer approaches Bach with mathematical and emotional precision.

Dan Tepfer brilliantly improvises Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’

They may originally have been written intending to help with sleepless nights, but Bach’s celebrated “Goldberg Variations” are known for their brilliance.

In his San Francisco Performances debut this week, composer-pianist Dan Tepfer will play them, adding an improvisational twist.

Born and raised in Paris, the French-American musician is admired in both jazz and classical communities. New York Times classical critic Anthony Tommasini describes Tepfer’s “Goldberg” program as “no stunt, but a fresh musical exploration. I bet Bach would recognize a kindred spirit in Mr. Tepfer.”

Indeed, the exploration of musical possibilities as a studied science is central to the art of both the 18th-century German master from Leipzig, and Tepfer, a former astrophysics major. “I love Chopin, Brahms and Schumann on an emotional level, and Messiaen has influenced me, harmonically, but it’s the music of the Baroque — and before that, the very mathematical Renaissance investigations, that I adore,” Tepfer says.

While improvisation was once common to classical practitioners from Bach to Liszt, today it falls in the realm of jazz musicians.

“The increasing specialization that has pervaded almost every aspect of the 20th century has affected classical music, but being able to improvise expresses that you understand music beyond an academic level — that you understand music at a practical, intuitive level,” Tepfer adds.

Even among jazz artists, there are levels of improvisational integrity. For Tepfer, that integrity permeates the work of legendary saxophonist and composer Lee Konitz, with whom he’s worked closely for seven years.

“Even if you’re improvising, you can repeat things you’ve played before. But Lee, who toured with people like Charlie Parker, is one of the most radical proponents of making sure that what comes out is specific to that very moment,” says Tepfer, who was a teen when he first heard pianist Glenn Gould’s famed 1981 recording of the “Goldberg Variations.”

Gould, a brilliant iconoclast who could not bear the improvisational qualities of live performance, left the concert stage at 32 — Tepfer’s current age and the number of measures in the Aria, the opening theme and basis of the “Goldberg Variations.”

Meanwhile, an early biography of Bach’s life says the composer wrote the variations for his harpsichord student Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who often played for Count Keyserlingk, a man suffering from insomnia.

There are reasons to doubt the authenticity of the story, but for the late pianist-writer Charles Rosen, the “Goldberg Variations” quintessentially represent the composer, and that, with the exception of the “St. Matthew Passion,” in no work is the “depth of Bach’s spirit so easily accessible, and its significance so tangible.”

IF YOU GO

Dan Tepfer

Presented by San Francisco Performances

Where: SF Jazz Center, 201 Franklin St., S.F.

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8

Tickets: $30 to $55

Contact: (415) 392-2545, www.sfperformances.org

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