Whether he’s performing for prisoners in Uganda, refugees in Palestine, the Hollywood elite or school children in New Hampshire, Richard Hartshorne has discovered the international language is music.
The double bass player and composer known as “Dobbs,” of Nelson, founded his nonprofit 15 years ago. With the mission of bringing hope, inspiration and laughter to underserved and disadvantaged communities around the world, Bach With Verse presents free live musical performances, master classes and workshops to children and adults in such settings as schools, prisons, orphanages, refugee camps and hospitals.
Beginning in Bolivia as a member of the Peace Corps, Hartshorne spent six years performing as principal bass in several orchestras in Latin America and was one of the designers of the free youth music program in Costa Rica. He then spent 30 years with the Apple Hill Chamber Players, playing chamber music around the world and serving as director of summer programs. But he always felt happiest when playing for audiences outside the box of traditional classical music audiences.
Hartshorne began transcribing the Six Solo Cellos Suites by J.S. Bach — a series of dances — on the double bass in the original octave and key in 1967. He recorded them in 1997 and his debut performance of the suites was in 2002 in Dublin, Ireland.
He has also written about 40 comedic stories from around the world for bass and narrator (Hartshorne). The combination proved to be a ready-made program for a one-man show.
As a part of the Apple Hill Chamber Center for Chamber Music’s Playing For Peace tours, which began in 1992, Hartshorne translated his musical stories into numerous languages to be accessible to audiences around the world, and the Bach With Verse program incorporates his performance of one of Bach’s Solo Cello Suites.
It started during the ‘90s when a friend of Hartshorne’s suggested he perform at prisons in the state. He did a couple, one at the Cheshire County House of Corrections (then in Westmoreland) and another at the women’s State Prison in Goffstown, where he met an inmate who played the violin.
When she was released, she wrote Hartshorne a letter.
“I asked her to be on the advisory board along with the warden,” said Hartshorne.
The warden in Goffstown helped organize a concert for Hartshorne at San Quentin Prison, which was followed by more concerts at prisons throughout California. He was then invited by an Apple Hill musician to Palestine, where he lived for a month.
“Things just fell into place,” he said.
In 2004, Bach With Verse began presenting Hartshorne’s concert at schools and prisons throughout New Hampshire and prisons and youth development centers in Maine. The following year, the Prison Concert Project expanded to Connecticut and California, to New York in 2008, Vermont in 2009 and Michigan in 2013.
The project now serves more than 25 facilities each year.
In 2005, Bach With Verse began presenting Hartshorne on tour in Palestine in collaboration with a center that provides free music lessons for refugee children. In the years following, he’s performed for such audiences as rescued street children in schools and orphanages in Uganda, community centers in Baghdad and many others with the funding and support of other nonprofit organizations.
He began presenting concert-lectures in schools and community centers 11 years ago with funding from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, performing and leading discussions on the transformative place music has in developing communities as well as presenting a short film about his tours followed by an audience question-and-answer session.
“I feel like now I can play for any audience in the world — any nationality, any age,” he said. “In prisons, drug rehab centers, refugee camps, mud and wattle churches in Africa — it doesn’t matter, I can do it.”
He found that the intensity of the cello suite combined with the resonance of the bass in small settings produces a strong and almost hypnotic effect on audiences.
“Bach was possibly the most intelligent human that ever lived,” said Hartshorne. “His seemingly straightforward music had all this emotional depth underneath.”
Humor is a perfect companion for the emotional intensity of the music. The two or three of his dozens of stories he tells during each concert are always in the native language.
The texts are translated by a native speaker then practiced by Dobbs until he can mimic them perfectly. He has told stories in 17 different languages so far.
“I have one story about a Japanese mountain climber who survives on mayo for two weeks,” he said. “I found mayo is the same in any language.”
He noticed his stories are particularly popular with prisoners.
“They get so affected by Bach they really open up and can laugh easily,” he said. “They sometimes stand up and cheer. It makes an amazing connection.”
Since he founded Bach With Verse, Hartshorne has seen not only how the music affects these people’s lives, but how it’s inspired them and set them on a career path.
“There is a student in Iraq who has performed with his trio at a refugee camp,” he said. “I also got a Facebook message from a student in Bolivia who began playing cello because she saw me perform.”
The work he’s doing he sees as important enough he won’t take time off. He’s planning to work with a music school in Afghanistan and play at prisons in Uganda this year, and next year he plans to bring Bach With Verse to schools in Iraq, in addition to his regular schedule of performances at schools and prisons in the U.S.
He is currently securing funding to bring Bach With Verse to middle- and high-school students in the Monadnock Region.
Until people are exposed to Bach in a small space with sound waves touching their bodies, Hartshorne believes they don’t realize there is something lacking in their lives.
“When you give this music to people, especially those in difficult circumstances, it creates this incredible reaction I see every time I play,” he said. “Everyone knows on some level we are all just fellow humans who have a need for this kind of music.
“It unifies people.”