A Cornucopia of Celebrated Cellists

October 3, 2008

The last couple of weeks have yielded a bounty of virtuosic cello performances: four concerts featuring five cellists, each outstanding in its own way, each offering a unique interpretation of the instrument, providing not only musical enjoyment for the audiences, but a glimpse into the many and varied ways that the versatile cello may be played.

Last Saturday and Sunday, Denise Djokic soloed with the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra in Hyannis, demonstrating her technical mastery and passionate playing style. Last Friday, cellist Savely Schuster and pianist Sharon Mann performed well-known masterworks for both instruments at Falmouth Academy. On September 19, cellists Bo Ericsson and Elizabeth Schultze and pianist Anne Perrault provided a wide range of 20th-century music at the Cape Cod Conservatory in West Barnstable. And on September 14, improvisational jazz/contemporary cellist Eugene Friesen, together with pianist Tim Ray and trumpeter Greg Hopkins, offered up an afternoon of innovative original music at Highfield Hall in Falmouth. It was a rare opportunity to hear the cello featured in exuberant and understated classical music, Broadway and modern music, and original contemporary music and jazz.

Denise Djokic and the Cape Cod Symphony

Ms. Djokic, a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music, who also attended the England Conservatory in Boston, is considered one of the best young classical musicians around. She was named one of most accomplished young Canadians by two publications. Cape Cod audiences last heard Ms. Djokic in February 2007, when she performed with the Simon Sinfonietta in Falmouth.
This time, she played Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, a piece written in 1877 in a Baroque style, featuring an elegant theme and seven variations, ranging from melancholic to contemplative to lively to almost frenzied. Ms. Djokic was up to the challenge of this demanding piece, playing gracefully, beautifully, with good projection throughout. She provided good contrast between the loud, big-vibrato, grumbling lower notes, the showy glissandos, and the soft, delicate highest notes on the cello, demonstrating very solid technique, as well as an expressive musicality.

Maestro Jung-Ho Pak said, in the pre-concert talk, that he selected the pieces for the weekend’s concerts to sharpen the senses of the orchestra. After a summer of pops music played outside under uneven acoustics, the orchestra benefits by playing a piece like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which demands great focus. “It is a great way,” he said, “to set the palette for the next season.”

The CCSO lived up to Mr. Pak’s introduction, providing a glorious rendition of Beethoven’s joyful masterpiece. The orchestra played with intensity and skill, while Mr. Pak conducted with an electric fervor, jumping up and down at times, his whole body vibrating with the music. After the extraordinary presto movement, an awed audience member behind me said, simply, “Wow.” At the end, the orchestra, and the maestro, were rewarded with a heartfelt standing ovation.

Next on the Cape Cod Symphony’s schedule, in the CapePOPS! series, is the “Classical Mystery Tour” on October 11 and 12, featuring the original members of Broadway’s “Beatlemania” singing all your Beatle favorites.

Savely Schuster and Sharon Mann at Falmouth Academy

Falmouth resident Savely Schuster was born in the Ukraine; he has served as principal cellist both in Odessa and for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and also performs chamber music throughout the US. He and pianist Sharon Mann of San Francisco have been friends for more than 20 years, though this was only their second performance together. It was an evening of wonderful music, beginning with the poignant and evocative Élegié by Gabriel Fauré. Mr. Savely’s cello playing was rich and sensitive without being overwhelming. Ms. Mann’s piano accompaniment, an integral part of the piece, complemented the cello well, her playing elegant and seeming effortless.

Brahms’ Sonata in D Major for Cello is actually a transcription of his Sonata in G Major for violin and piano, which Brahms played at the memorial concert for his friend Robert Schumann. It was the cello version that Brahms played at the funeral of Clara Schumann. The sonata contains beautifully flowing parts, blazingly fast sections, and soaring cello lines; the adagio offers long, slow extended notes on the cello, tender and sorrowful, as well as a moving melody and some pounding chords in the piano. Mr. Schuster and Ms. Mann were expressive and perfect together in emotional piece.

“To cheer you up,” Mr. Schuster then played a vibrant and bouncy Allegretto Grazioso, attributed to Schubert, and followed that with the Saraband from Bach’s suite in d minor for unaccompanied cello, dedicating it to the memory of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. It is a sad and mournful piece, with long extended notes accented by double stops, ending on a long, solitary note. The audience loved it, applauding enthusiastically.
Ms. Mann performed two solo works, Nocturne in E Flat Major by Chopin and Prelude in g sharp minor by Rachmaninoff, both brilliantly, with graceful hand movement that seemed to add more expression to her vivid performance.

The final piece on the program was perhaps the most impressive, Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in d minor. Written in 1934, this piece is rich with Russian moodiness and folk tune themes, as well as lots of “special effects” on the cello: rough and dramatic bow techniques, glissandos, pizzicato, and lots of sound and fury, as well as slow and meditative lyrical sections and culminating in a frenzy of virtuosic activity for both of these gifted and accomplished players.

Bo Ericsson, Elizabeth Schultze, and Anne Perrault at the Cape Cod Conservatory, West Barnstable

Mr. Ericsson and Ms. Schultze, a versatile and talented husband-and-wife cello duo from Orleans who also play with the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra and the Simon Sinfonietta, performed “A 20th-Century Chamber Music Concert” (and one 21st-century piece). This concert was part of the conservatory’s Performance Series, a series of intimate, early-evening concerts with receptions following, designed to make outstanding performances more accessible to audiences in West Barnstable and Falmouth. Future concerts include harpsichordist SharonRose Pfeiffer on October 17, the Brentwood Consort on November 21, and a holiday concert on December 5, all in West Barnstable, and December 12 in Falmouth. All concerts take place at 5:30 PM and are relatively short, allowing plenty of time for dinner afterward.

Ms. Schultze and pianist Ann Perrault began with Rachmaninoff’s haunting and spine-tingling Vocalize and Gershwin’s love song, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” Vocalize was splendid, and “Bess” was exquisite, with Ms. Schultze bringing out all the emotion in this powerful piece, the cello serving as the perfect instrumental substitute for the voice.

Mr. Ericsson countered with “Somewhere” from Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” and the second movement of a Suite for Solo Cello written for him by Ted Frazeur, a composer who moved to the Cape fairly recently. Mr. Frazeur was in the audience for the performance. According to Mr. Ericsson, the second movement is the “easiest” of the three movements in this fiendishly difficult piece, which Mr. Frazeur wrote in 2007 (this being the 21st-century piece).

Honoring Bach’s solo cello suites, which are based on dances, Mr. Frazeur said he tried to include some of the same elements in his work. The movement required many and varied cello techniques, mixing pizzicato and bowing, gritty playing near the bridge, and a dazzling display of cello mastery from Mr. Ericsson. I look forward to hearing the entire suite, which he has recorded for a CD that is under production.

Mr. Frazeur, recently retired, has been a teacher, conductor, performer, soloist, and composer, and has issued 13 albums of his work. His recent CD, “Fearful Symmetry: Musics of Ted Frazeur,” is an excellent introduction to the works of this prolific composer and includes performances by such Cape Cod musicians as oboist Betsy Doriss, pianists Melinda Crane, Lucy Banner, and Donald Enos, vocalists Carole Buttner Maloof, John Murelle, and the Chatham Chorale, as well as the voice of his late wife, Joyce Frazeur, who reads her poetry to his piano accompaniment. Some of the works are interpretations or responses to Celtic or early music or poetry, and some is created or inspired by electronic devices.

The concert concluded with Menotti’s Sonata for Two Cellos and Piano, an impressive work of many moods: majestic, stormy, driving, and passionate, as well as lyrical, moving, and calm. The audience was audibly moved at times, expressing their approval and awe of three very fine musicians.

The evening was a big hit with the audience, who seemed to appreciate the early start time, the intimate setting, the reception afterward, and, most importantly the musical program. “Very nice program, don’t you think?” I heard one woman say to her friend.

“Perfect,” was the response.

Tre Corda at Highfield Hall, Falmouth

Tre Corda is a jazz ensemble consisting of Tim Ray on piano, Eugene Friesen on cello, and Greg Hopkins on trumpet. You don’t find a cello playing jazz often, or a cellist like Eugene Friesen, who plays and freely blends all types of music to come up with his own uniquely contemporary sound, inspired by Brazilian music, African drums, classical music, classical jazz and roots music, and his own fertile imagination. Mr. Ray and Mr. Hopkins are also very creative and original musicians; they come together as three equal musicians, each composing and improvising, each helping to create their distinctive sound, and adding a touch of humor here and there.

The group’s website describes them well: “The name of the group comes from classical piano notation, as an instruction to the pianist to release the soft pedal and let all three strings vibrate freely (literally ‘three strings’ or ‘three sounds’), and suggests that the trio’s members, individually and collectively, are free to explore their own creative path—independent of boundaries and categories that limit musical expression.”
Mr. Friesen used pizzicato techniques liberally, producing percussive effects with the strings and sometimes with the wooden body of the cello as well, creating a wide range of sounds and sound effects. He can mimic an entire rhythm section or produce dynamic or lyrical melodies, and sometimes it seems that he is doing all of the above at the same time.
Mr. Hopkins used his trumpet similarly, making “wa-wa” sounds with his bathroom plunger over the bell of the horn. And Mr. Ray took command of the piano, fingers dancing, always in control.

The jazz tunes came fast and furious; It seemed like all three musicians wanted to keep playing, without stopping for a breath, let alone to conclude the concert. The trio did conclude though, ending with their own arrangement of “All Blues,” from the album, “Kind of Blue,” by Miles Davis, which Mr. Ray pointed out was the highest selling jazz record of all time. Called back for an encore by a very enthusiastic audience, they played variations on “Pinocchio.”

The concert was part of the Salon Series at Highfield Hall, which presents chamber music performed by artists from all over New England and elsewhere. Concerts are held on the elegant first floor of Highfield Hall. Upcoming concerts include the Moët Trio (violin, cello, and piano) on November 16 and a holiday concert on December 21, celebrating Christmas in the British Isles.

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