Monday, February 5, 2007

Cello Shots--Opening evening concert of UCD's 2007 Cello Festival

From lyric melodies to thunderstrokes and low growls to mouse-like squeaks, the cello, as heard on Friday night in UCD's Studio Theatre, had many voices. With piano added for two pieces and taped speech for a third, the musical sounds were multiplied, transporting the capacity audience to a new auditory world.

The cello was celebrated that evening with compositions dating from 1922 (Manuel Maria Ponce) to 2004 (Karen Sunabacka). The featured musicians are well-known and exceedingly popular. Cellists were Jennifer Culp, Jean-Michele Fonteneau, Leighton Fong, Andrew Luchansky, David Russell (Artist-in-Residence) and Susan Lamb Cook (Director of the Festival). Pianists were Betty Woo and Natsuki Fukasawa.

Playing Alexander Tcherepnin's First Sonata in D Major, Op. 2, (1924), Ms Culp and Ms. Woo shared, contrasted and exchanged themes, tempos and moods. They seemed often to move independently, but sometimes they clearly supported each other, as though simultaneity were the goal of their performance. The cello could, of course, sustain notes and project torment or sorrow while the piano with speed and arpeggios projected excitement. At the end, a staccato piano and plucked strings were united.

David Russell's interpretation of Jonathan Harvey's Curves with plateaux (1982) began with his explanation: the music would rise to a plateau and then come down again. When he began to play, I heard an 8-note theme but then a pounding, shrieking, plucking, sliding kaleidoscope of sounds. The theme would fade in a high-pitched whistle as Russell slid a finger up a string. Sustained two-note chords, low dramatic tremors, and finally, ecstatic bounces, ended in sudden silence, which was, even though it concluded the piece, still part of the music..

Mr. Fonteneau's approach to Henri Dutilleux' 3 Strophes sur le nom de Paul Sacher for solo cello (1981) seemed in the first movement thoughtful, as though the artist were testing different effects, listening to a gentle bouncing of his bow then an energetic bounce; then scales; then quiet tones interrupted by plucking. He played a melody slowly in each register, his elaboration on low tones felt the most exciting. As he approached the end of the work, his playing was a fast scramble, then melody and scale passages were plucked, like perhaps a 'kitten on the strings'. The melody, softened, returned, and a scale swept softly up the strings. A sustained note was the close.

Mr. Fong's cello and and the electronic voices of young girls---recorded at summer camp by composer Karen Sunabacka---contrast and only toward the end seem to interact. 'And then I crow' has a first clear voice saying 'And then I cry', but soon many voices are talking, high-pitched, chattering; the speed is fast, speeches are fragmented, but all seems cheerful if incomprehensible. 'And then I crow' one girl speaks with clarity, but chatter and giggles return. Meanwhile, Fong's cello is slow, serious and lyrical. A girl crows like a rooster. After that, words are clear and slow, fitting the mood of the cello. No sooner has that happened than the cello is plucked three times and the music ends.

Mr. Luchansky played the most moving work of the evening, Henry Cowell's Grave in Memory of John F. Kennedy, Jr., for Cello Alone. This cello voice was reverent, somber and mournful, certainly as the composer intended. The theme was long, played smoothly, but sometimes the cello became a vigorous, even angry voice. Loss is not experienced peacefully. But Mr. Luchansky's quiet close left the audience silent, living, or re-living, a tragic time.

Ponce's Sonata for Violoncello and Piano (1922), performed by Ms. Cook and Ms. Fukasawa, took the audience to a concert hall in a time when music was ornamented, romantic, colorful, sometimes percussive, often shimmering---no doubt very difficult to play but a great pleasure to hear. Piano and cello were full partners and began by presenting a slow, gorgeous melody.

For the allegro, the piano is sprightly and the pianist magnificent. She clearly has need for her page-turner. The cello is in a romantic mode.

The arietta is soft and pretty, the two instruments echoing each other. The piano charms with its lightness and trills, the cello with a quiet closing theme.

The fourth movement, allegro burlesco, opened with sharp, sudden chords, and the cello, too, was jumpy and fast. Contrasts abounded: loud and soft, enchanting and turbulent, lyrical and abrupt. The duo came together in a slow melody, but then it became fast, staccato, loud---returning, it seemed, to the movement's brilliant opening.

Yes, I loved this concert and look forward to every celebration of the cello that Susan Lamb Cook, the UCD Deparrment of Music, and fine musicians like these can bring to Davis.

---Marilyn M. Mantay 5 February 2007