in: Reviews

April 28, 2010

Expanding the Bounds of the Cello at the New Paramount

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The Celebrity Series presented cellist Maya Beiser at the newly renovated Paramount Theatre in a multi-media concert entitled, “World to Come” on Friday, April 23.

Maya Beiser began the concert in a very evocative, mysterious way with an arrangement of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres for solo cello and four pre-recorded, multi-track cellos (all of them recorded by Beiser herself.) After Beiser entered and picked up her cello, the stage went dark and the music started. As the lights slowly came up, it was really hard to determine which cello line Beiser was playing, or whether, in fact, she was playing at all. Perhaps she was simulating playing, as the actors in the play Opus had done so convincingly. The disembodied sounds were woven so closely together that it was unclear what was recorded and what was live. The slow-moving, contemplative piece was like a call to prayer, a disarming way to begin this concert. And without needing to explain, Baiser made the case that whether recorded or live, the cello voices were equally important and musically viable.

Unfortunately, the rest of the concert had a certain wearing sameness of sound. The amplified cello often sounded loud and grating, at times like a reed instrument or an accordion. The overriding dynamic level seemed loud and strident, unmodulated, and without vibrato. Sometimes that was appropriate, as in Khse Buon by Chinary Ung, which reflected the horrific experience of Cambodia under the Pol Pot. But often there was just a sameness that extended throughout the works; if everything is equally important, nothing is important at all. It’s possible that these problems were due to the sound system and/or the acoustic in the newly renovated Paramount Theatre that may not yet be adjusted.

Not all the music was so strident. Golijov’s Mariel was lyrical and singing. And in Like Smoke, a 13th-century Sanctus from the Gregorian liturgy arranged by Evan Zipporyn, Beiser’s actual singing voice (she had adapted a beautiful Hebrew poem by Yehuda Amichai) carried one of the three melodic strands. However, the plangent cello sound covered her voice and the effect of three voices was lost. You could see her singing, but you couldn’t really hear her.

The most striking visual element of the evening occurred in Steve Reich’s Cello Counterpoint. Seven images of Baiser appeared behind her, each playing one of the eight different cello parts that make up this piece. As the mind wandered from the music, thoughts of “which of them is really into it, which one is just marking time, which of these is not like the other” ultimately detracted from the music. In the David Lang World to Come, an extended work of 24 minutes, the video by Irit Batsry was distracting and slightly dizzying, but it did offer an alternative focus to the sound of many tracks and one solo cello, none of them more important than the others, and ultimately an unchanging mass of sound.

Maya Beiser is a cellist for whom the challenges of the standard repertoire are far too tame. While she writes in program notes that she practices Bach every day, the influences in her early life in Israel —voices of Muslim prayers, tangos from the nearby Argentinian community, songs of Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday — instilled a desire in her to expand the boundaries of sound that the cello can create. Her early exploration into the visual arts growing up at an arts-oriented kibbutz and during her education at Tel Aviv University led her to create a broader concert experience that we have come to call “multi-media.” It’s clear that she has been an inspiration to many composers to “arrive at new territories, to discover sounds I have never heard before [and] to create endless possibilities with [the] cello.”

Her performance Friday evening incorporated all these different elements. Several of the works included film, and all of them were accompanied by pre-recorded audio tracks, which she herself made. Several times she spoke to the audience, introducing many of the works and adding information that helped us to understand more fully what the intent of each piece was.

Maya Beiser is a catalyst for new music and new ways to present it. She is obviously a gifted cellist, a free spirit and an intrepid musician. If the music that she inspires were more attuned to the actual sound that is created, her concepts would be more compelling for the listener and her voice would carry further.

The Paramount has been restored to its full 1932 Art-Deco glory days. [Though reduced in length] The freshly manufactured smell of new carpeting brings the refurbishment to your attention the moment you walk in, and the restored murals and period lighting create a time-travel effect for anyone who remembers seeing a movie here in the ‘60s.  Because of the amplified sound at this concert, it isn’t really possible to judge whether the hall acoustics will work for traditional small ensembles or solo concerts.

Gillian Rogell, a violist, is chair of the Chamber Music Department of the New England Conservatory School of Continuing Education, and also teaches at NEC Preparatory School, the Rivers School Conservatory, and Walnut Hill School. Her website is here.

2 Comments

  1. The auditorium has been reduced in size and now holds 550 seats instead of its original 1400. The original decoration did not survive, so what we see now is not restoration but new construction in the style of the original. Those are not “restored murals.”

    Comment by Bill — April 28, 2010 at 5:33 pm

  2. A sad, indeed tragic aspect of contemporary life… the attitude that the work of art is not good enough to stand on its own is so prevailing amongst directors. How often do we see Opera, Shakespeare etc. UPDATED and staged in a modern environment. Chamber Music at times is performed with video in the background. Classical music is becoming amplified more frequently.

    While I didn’t attend the concert, I have vivid memories of similar events where all of the distracting extra elements helped to destroy the overall impact of the music.

    Comment by Ed Burke — April 28, 2010 at 6:50 pm

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