Eugene Friesen, Cellist

Eugene Friesen Expresses The Multiple Voices Of The Cello

April 25, 2008

Contemporary improvisational cellist Eugene Friesen made his annual trip to Falmouth recently to perform at the Fishmonger’s Café Coffee House, entertain young school children, and teach some elements of jazz to a group of 25 student cellists of all ages and abilities.

Mr. Friesen, who lives in Vermont and teaches at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, is a master of the cello. He has recorded numerous solo and ensemble CDs. He has won Grammy Awards as a member of the Paul Winter Consort, and has performed all over the world. He blends traditional classical music with Brazilian folk melodies, wild improvisational jazz, and his own original compositions, demonstrating that there is no limit to the music that can be created with a cello.

One of Mr. Friesen’s missions is to make great music of all kinds accessible to audiences of all ages, especially children, and he has created an entirely different persona for this purpose, that of CelloMan. It was as CelloMan that he performed for children in kindergarten to third grade at the East Falmouth Elementary School last Wednesday morning.

Mr. Friesen opens each CelloMan show by playing the prelude to the first Bach cello suite, and concludes each performance by donning a mask of Pablo Casals and playing Bach’s “Air on a G String.” In between these tributes to the classical masters, he offers a wide variety of innovative, contemporary, and improvisational music to give students an introduction to the types of music that can be played on the cello.

In one amusing bit, Mr. Friesen wore a squirrel mask, becoming the squirrel that he claims broke into his house and discovered his cello. Using rapid, darting squirrel-like movements, he plucked the cello, tentatively at first, and then with abandon, as he (the squirrel) fell in love with the sound of the instrument.

One of the most memorable moments was “Humpback Harmony,” a duet between Mr. Friesen playing an electrified cello and a recording of the song of a humpback whale. The other-worldly sounds of the whales were echoed by the haunting sounds of the cello harmonics and Mr. Friesen’s unique reverberating plucking technique. The whole effect was mesmerizing, holding both children and adults spellbound.

That afternoon, Mr. Friesen joined 25 cello students of Nikki Garcia-Renart at the Woods Hole Community Center for a workshop on playing one rhythm against another. The students ranged in age from 5 to 60, including some who had been playing for only a few months and others who were quite accomplished musicians. Mr. Friesen easily adopted his teaching to make the workshop inspiring for all.

“He expands the horizon for all of us,” said Ms. Garcia-Renart. Mr. Friesen has been teaching these annual workshops for Ms. Garcia-Renart’s students for 10 years or so, and focuses on a different aspect of playing each time. In the past, they have improvised using the pentatonic scale, played 12-bar blues, studied different types of rhythm, and worked on improvisational ensemble playing.

At 8 PM, Mr. Friesen joined guitarist Freddie Bryant and pianist Tim Ray at Fishmonger’s Café in Woods Hole to become “Cello Nova,” a dynamic trio of outstanding musicians who effortlessly (it seemed) and passionately blended classical music, improvisational jazz, and Latin American rhythms and melodies.

Mr. Friesen opened the concert with a long, slow note, leading into a jazzed-up Brazilian version of Bach’s “Air on the G String,” joking afterward that it came from Bach’s “Brazilian period.” This was followed by three lively folk-style Brazilian pieces, a song he learned in Siberia, music from Colombia and Venezuela, and music by Brazilian composers Antonio Carlos Jobim and Ernesto Nazareth.

Playing the cello with a quiet elegance, Mr. Friesen often closed his eyes, as if transported by the music, but also provides whirlwind displays of cello virtuosity. Using an incredible array of original techniques, such as an earthy multiple-finger, double-handed pizzicato string plucking, a range of percussive techniques, visually and aurally expressive bowings, and dramatic slides up and down the fingerboard, Mr. Friesen produced both gorgeous slow warm tones on his cello, sometimes doubling them with his voice, and blurringly fast explosions of sounds, showing there are no limits to the types of music that can be created with a cello, at least with his practiced hands.

Mr. Bryant and Mr. Ray played brilliantly as well, each taking solos on their instruments, as well as playing duets with Mr. Friesen. Mr. Bryant recited Maya Angelou’s poem “Alone” (“Nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone”) while playing a guitar accompaniment he had composed for it. Mr. Ray played a catchy version of Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone,” on the piano.

Two of my favorite pieces were “Remembering You,” a beautiful, slow melodic tune written by Mr. Friesen, and one of the final pieces on the program, a piece called “Maracaibo,” after the city in Venezuela, because “we borrowed some of their rhythms.” This piece was electrifying , involving an incredible array of sounds and techniques, and extraordinary music.

Fishmonger’s Café was a perfect location for the concert, warm and intimate, like the music. Food and drink are available during the concert, and several tables are set up on either side of the chairs that make up the main part of the seating. Most seats have a good view of the musicians, and also of Vineyard Sound, out the windows.

The next concert in Tom Renshaw’s series of coffee houses at Fishmonger’s is on April 29 at 8 PM (doors open at 7) when the jazz group Downstreet Review will perform a blend of swing, blues, folk music and jazz. Members include Tom Renshaw, Joe Sutton, John Cullity, Bruce Millard and Geordie Gude. Tickets are $15 and are available at Under the Sun in Woods Hole and Eight Cousins Books in Falmouth.

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