The young cellist Ifetayo Ali enchanted a sold-out Calderwood Hall at the Gardner in her Boston debut this past Sunday, along with able and intuitive pianist, Lorena Tecu. Regal and poised, Ali is a phenom from Chicago who started Suzuki violin as a toddler under her musician mother’s tutelage, switched to cello at ~age 4, and first concertized at about age 6 years. She has much under her belt already, including her status as first-place laureate for 2017 in the Sphinx Competition Junior Division and solo engagements with various US-wide orchestras. She plays a gorgeous Peter Staszel cello with a focused yet rapturous look in her eyes. It is hard to believe she is only 16, given her mature interpretations (and perhaps her hair, currently a starkly-stripped white). Romanian-born Tecu, a locally and internationally known collaborative pianist, enhanced the concert with her sensitively intelligent musicianship.
In Bach’s Suite No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello in G Major, written in around 1720 (BWV 1007) Ali’s mastery of the phrasing—nuanced, sensitive and definitive—set the tone for a memorable concert. The prelude sounded as the exquisite tone poem it is, though with an occasional low-note growl. Ali’s version of the Allemande, sweet and tentative, with its theme and variations, wafted delicately. The Courante, rushed and mobile, flowed well, followed by the majestic, serious Sarabande. The two minuets contrasted, and defined, left us wanting more, and the final Gigue hornpiped with energy.
The oft-chosen Sonata No.1 in E Minor, Opus 38, for cello and piano by Brahms provides the opportunity for the lustrous singing tone of the cello and equal partnering with the piano. Tecu and Ali ably meld, and this sonata displayed both musicians and their instruments with balanced and rhapsodic energy. The Allegro non troppo sounded leisurely but profoundly, with pleasing modulations. The Allegretto quasi Maenad—in which an A Minor minuet shifts to a soulful trio and back to a variation of the initial minuet was pleasing. The final Allegro—fugal, serious, yet, at times, sprightly—worked well.
Ali dispatched two of the Three Meditations from Bernstein’s Mass (1971) with vivid contrasts and gusto. The composer arranged them himself for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich to play with either piano or orchestra. The first, more Hebraic than Catholic, sounds almost cantorial. The duo’s thoughtful presentation of the third, in which the piano shell is used as a drum and thrum, combines jazz, native and classical material, ending with pleasing hymn-like quality.
African American composer and conductor Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson (1932-2004), named for the British-African poet and composer, similarly brought multifaceted arts to fruition. Ali chose the last of his Lamentations-Black Folk Song Suite for solo cello, written in 1973—Perpetual Motion, which recalls Bach in a novel voice. Ali’s version stunned with its verve, shaping and tone.
Russian cellist-composer Karl Yulievich Davydov (1838-1889) wrote some gems. Davydov, dubbed “the czar of cellists” by his contemporary, Tchaikovsky, knew what the instrument could do. In Opus 20, Springbrunnen (At the Fountain), Ali and Tecu evinced an organic mood—starting first with an aural “vision” of a hovering hummingbird, followed by a second lyrical melody, then repeats of the first theme twice, bridged by a variation on the second-theme melody. The performance buzzed with energy.
The crowd clearly hoped for an encore, but none was forthcoming, though Ali was gracious and delightful as people approached to congratulate her. She particularly acknowledged several very young aspiring cellists who shyly approached for autographs. Ali herself has posted, “Boston recital… went really well!” She sure is right about that!