in: Reviews

July 30, 2011

Smörgåsbord of Celli Pyrotechnics

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One year ago the Boston Cello Quartet played their first concert at Tanglewood; on July 29 at 6pm in Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, the group presented its first anniversary concert including an array of transcriptions and two world premieres. Four cellists of the Boston Symphony Orchestra comprise Boston Cello Quartet, rotating seating by piece, so here listed alphabetically: Blaise Déjardin, Adam Esbensen, Mihail Jojatu, and Alexandre Lecarme. Together they showcase the cello in its range of octaves, sonic possibilities, and tonal colors.

The program opened with J. S. Bach, Toccata and Fugue in d, BWV 565 (arranged by D. B. Moore). To highlight the different voices, the cellists performed in all four octaves of the cello’s range, giving each voice scope over a different octave; in addition to dynamic contrasts, “sul ponticello” bowing gave added variety in the fugue. Bach’s aria, “Sheep may safely graze,” from Cantata no. 208, was a study in tranquility and delicacy, while the arrangement (by Blaise Déjardin) recalled some of Haydn’s writing for the cello. Alexandre Lecarme gave lovely voice to the melodic line, flowing song in legato style with phrasing and articulation worthy of a Baroque soprano.

For the Dvorák Humoreska in G, Op. 101, no. 7 (also arranged by Déjardin), Mihail Jojatu took the melodic line in hand, offering a delightfully playful reading of this character piece. The Humoreska is a mainstay of early cello student recitals, thanks in part to its inclusion in the Suzuki books, and it is often rendered as trite, serious, far from humorous (the reviewer writes from personal experience); it was a treat — and also an act of musical redemption — to hear it performed musically and well. Jojatu remained in the limelight for Rimsky-Korsakov, The Flight of the Bumblebee (arr. T. King); he maintained an absolutely steady flight across the cello’s full compass, backed by the balance of the quartet, in a virtuosic performance of a virtuosic piece.

With Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, the group returned to more substantial fare, this time in the composer’s own orchestration. Adam Esbensen took the upper voice, mastering stopped and natural harmonics as well as earthy percussive motifs. Jojatu and Lecarme accompanied with pizzicati and plucking of string after-lengths (below the bridge); throughout, Déjardin grounded Pärt’s ethereal lyricism with a constant drone. The whole made for a very haunting reading. Four Movements from Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition (also arr. Déjardin), namely, Promenade, Tuileries, Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells, & The Great Gate of Kiev, offered a more playful haunting, here in a quieter and more intimate setting. The Debussy (arr. Déjardin) Clair de lune was subtle, flowing, nostalgic.

Then a shift of gears brought the world premiere of Tetsuro Hoshii, The Waltz of the Black Ants, dedicated to the Boston Cello Quartet. Drawing on cross-rhythms, varieties of pizzicato, and harmonic progressions found in jazz, the a-section theme recalls Villa-Lobos’s lyricism, ornamentation, and modern harmonies, while the b-section begins alla marcia, the strong rhythmic element coming to the foreground, before the a-section theme returns. Patrice Sciortino’s Iber-Amer, 3 dances from Latin America (Tan.Go.Tan; Por-Zil; & Basam) draws on rhythmic and melodic traditions of tango, fado, and samba. I kept recalling to memory snippets from the recording Le Grand Tango by cellist Carter Brey and pianist Christopher O’Riley; Piazzolla, Ginastera, and Milhaud seem to be in the background to Sciortino’s dances.

The program concluded with another world premiere, Déjardin’s Wolfgang Variations, which jumps off from Mozart’sSymphony no. 35, “Haffner.” Beginning and ending with Mozart, Déjardin’s  work is a “serious pastiche” of two centuries of music: from the “seagull” (descending stopped harmonics from a glissando down the cello strings) we leave Mozart and travel forward in time. Rossini’s William Tell overture segues into the Goldfinger melody, Can-Can makes an appearance, as cellists kick up a leg, La Marseillaise for a moment, even a harmonica appears for a hoedown, before Mozart wraps up these variations.

The concert as a whole was a smörgåsbord of music. Bach, Toccata and fugue and Mussorgsky, Four Movements from Pictures at an Exhibition, are bold programming choices for a cello quartet. Both are powerful works, the former relying on “the mighty organ” and the latter on the full forces a symphonic orchestra. Four celli cannot contend with organ or whole orchestra, so these works were presented in less dramatic renditions, fireworks replaced by cellistic pyrotechnics. Serious and humorous music took the stage in turns, reminding us of the cello’s panoply of capabilities. Déjardin’s Wolfgang Variations was an amusing conclusion to a little summer night’s music.

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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