IN: Reviews

Green’s Electric Cello and Tribute to Grainger


In the jewel-box of the Federated Church in Charlemont, Mass., evening sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows on Friday July 1, at the Mohawk Trail’s first concert of its forty-second season. This initial concert, its annual “music old and new,” combined a mini-recital with a new piece by Gordon Green and anniversary tributes to composers Liszt, Mahler, and Grainger.

Cellist Astrid Schween and pianist Estela Olevsky began with a selection of salon pieces: Élégie and La Lugubre Gondola by Franz Liszt, and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen from the Rückert-Lieder by Mahler (transcribed for cello and piano by Gordon Green). The selection highlighted Schween’s intense ribbon of sound drawn from the cello, with a varied palette of tonal colors, wide range of dynamics, and her outstanding bow control. The vibrato varied to suit the musical character of each piece. Olevsky shared the array of dynamics and phrasing, making for a wonderful collaboration.

From this opening introspection the program moved into a lighter vein just as the evening light began to fade, with Beethoven’s Seven Variations on the Theme “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (WoO 46). Schween and Olevsky presented a delightful Mozartian lightness, giving way to the Sturm und Drang of Beethoven at the end of the seventh variation. This often-overlooked stylistic variation added a fresh quality to the variations and a nice contrast to the program’s opening salon-pieces while highlighting an aspect crucial to this music.

After a brief pause for equipment and personnel change, Schween returned with an electric Yamaha cello for Gordon Green’s Music for Electric Cello and Electronics (with the composer controlling the electronics from a stage-side mixing board). Schween described this four-movement work as one based on improvisation and compared the electronic accompaniment to playing with a phantom orchestra. The first movement is melismatic, the melody having some harmonic affinity with Eastern music. The second movement, introduced as having a “screechy bunch of texture” shows the influence of rock music, perhaps even the cello music of Apocalyptica, combined with the interplay of stopped and harmonic notes. The third movement is a soaring melody of aching beauty, the electronic accompaniment often recalling wind chimes. The finale, a fast movement, is a race to the finish, combining rhythmic and melodic elements and successfully drawing together the work as a whole. Overall the work is a very memorable, tuneful, and captivating piece recalling the astute combination of rhythm and melody found in the compositions of Hindemith.

In her introductory remarks, Schween had talked about acquiring the electric cello as a practice instrument but was surprised, and pleased, to learn that “an electric cello has a soul.” That soul was certainly on display in Green’s music in a very convincing way, and her playing makes a convincing case for the electric cello as a performance instrument; I only regret the thin, at times reedy, lower register (the nature of the instrument, I fear), which stands in stark contrast to the chocolate richness of the lower register of her acoustic cello.

After intermission, the concert resumed with “A Tribute to Percy Grainger” in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Nigel Coxe gave commentary and played piano, joined by Olevsky on a tiny spinet crowded onto the small stage with the imposing grand piano. Coxe began with Grieg’s “I Wander Deep in Thought” from his Norwegian Folk Tunes (Op. 66), to introduce Grieg’s profound influence on Grainger and Grainger’s own love for folk song. This proved the perfect lead-in to Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy, originally composed for wind ensemble, then later “dished up” (Grainger’s phrase) for two pianos, four hands. Each of the six song settings is a portrait of the singer from whom Grainger recorded the folk tune (using the new-fangled technology of phonograph and wax cylinder). From the brisk “Dublin Bay” through the shifting metrical modulations of “Rufford Park Poachers” to “Lord Melbourne” (a war song written, in parts, without bar measures) the Posy culminates in the “fast but sturdy” dance song, “The Lost Lady Found,” here set contrapuntally with the theme passing between pianos. The music recalls some of the very English settings of Holst or Elgar in its use of English folk tunes.

Coxe and Olevsky offered up a “twosome at one piano” (Grainger’s penchant for wholly English description should now be evident) on a plaintive seven-bar phrase song from the Faroe Islands, “Let’s Dance Gay in Green Meadow,” dedicated to the painter John Singer Sargent. The upbeat tempo conveyed the dance character of this music, setting up a lovely contrast with the minor-keyed melody. The close quarters and intense coordination required to perform this four-hand music on one piano, a performance feat, was a pleasure to behold.

Returning to the second piano, Olevsky joined Coxe in a nuanced two-piano, four-hand rendering of Bach’s aria, Sheep May Safely Graze, introducing Grainger’s Blithe Bells. Grainger’s composition is “a free ramble” on the Bach (including elements of Duke Ellington, so very free indeed) that manages to be wistful where Bach is confident, the recall of Bach’s aria granting a haunting depth to Grainger’s work.

The evening concluded with Grainger’s Irish Tune from County Derry (a playful and fun four-part setting of Londonderry Air, more widely known as Danny Boy) and Country Gardens. This tribute offered a window into the interesting world of Percy Grainger centered on his collecting of folk music and was effectively animated by Nigel Coxe.

Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.


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