IN: Reviews

Cellist Tilts at Chivalric Deeds


In the vibrantly polychromatic Church of the Covenant on Saturday afternoon, Haydn’s Overture to Armida provided the warmup for the debuting Vangarde Orchestra. The players delivered smooth, tuneful, sonorous orchestral sound in the reverberant space. No early music group this, but rather a large ear-filling and soul-stirring contingent. Conductor Max Hobart, made a well-argued case for Haydn’s precis of arias and set pieces from his favorite opera and throughout the entire afternoon brought amazing polish to the newborn, ad hoc orchestra of Baverstam’s friends. Hobart’s moving advocacy for Baverstam felt like a torch being passed across generations.

The virtual curtain rose as the tame and predictable gave way to neo-romantic Sturm und Drang turbulence, setting the stage for the Baverstam D Minor cello concerto, a journey through romantic expressiveness, fight songs, mysterious frights, exotic travels, and ironic quasi resolutions. Baverstam contains multitudes (Bloch, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Bach, Korngold, Dylan, and Max Steiner), but he transforms his impulses and lyrical themes and into well-developed dramatic incidents. The orchestral score conveyed this multiplicity of voices, like shadows and ghosts from a vast realm surrounding the cello at its living center. The cello’s quest to find a personal path forward, rooted in the past but authentically new, constituted the deep and unifying core of the three powerful movements.

The fast, slow, fast movements share material in novel ways, spanning three centuries and at least three themes, but feeling very much in the moment as well. Over a muscular 40 minutes, no episode overstays and Baverstam’s wit with polyrhythms**, exotic colorations, and passing pseudo-12-tone rows nicely contrasts with his authentically and outgoingly juicy heart-on-sleeve chivalry, showing him to be the complete musical omnivore. We happily bear witness to the match as the composer and the cellist embark on an Arthurian romantic joust with one another. For more on the genesis of the piece read Baverstam’s creation story HERE.

Baverstam writes: “The Superwoman* concerto is about a struggle to be heard and a destination of empowerment. An ode to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, I believe everyone is on a journey, and everyone finds fulfillment. This piece represents a journey of any kind, whether it is an internal discovery, or an external adventure. I dedicate this piece to my mother, the strongest person I know and a true Superwoman. The piece can be thought of as a tone poem about a hero’s journey, development, personal growth/morphing, and victory, the classic tale. I didn’t write it with all this in mind, I just followed the musical logic.”

Baverstam’s bardic presence as performer, composer, explicator, and orchestra builder puts me in mind of Dylan’s praise of capaciousness:

I sing the songs of experience like William Blake
I have no apologies to make
Everything’s flowin’ all at the same time
I live on the boulevard of crime
I drive fast cars and I eat fast foods . . . I contain multitudes.

Fellow BMInter Anne Davenport agrees with the Whitman reference, “…but only in the orchestral score — and in dialogue with the austere, “single individual” cello; polyglot orchestra, idiomatic cello. The point is, Sebastian never “imitates” Sibelius, Mendelssohn, etc. Nor does he borrow. He simply lets their voices flow out from the instruments of the orchestra, as though these were saturated with centuries of music. And in contrast the cello is radically new, speaking in its own “never heard before but understood by all” idiom of emotion.” 

Another BMInter Leon Golub adds: “The cello provided a strong unified center that held the diverse voices from fragmenting, while leaving them their individuality. I can’t think of another piece that has this structure as its main core.”

We were left with an enduring impression of Baverstam as an original melodist, an orchestrator with an advanced vocabulary, a structural engineer whose sense of organization kept us looped in, and performer with technique of the high order in the service of a communicative soul. He commanded the stage with justifiable confidence which enabled him to share his innermost longing and pride, singing out with arias as vivid and memorable as some “Nessun Dorma,” and vaulting over self-imposed technical hurdles. His duetting with the concertmaster and engaging with sections of the orchestra kept his pallet varied and dominance flexible.

As moments of exotic orchestral color with cymbals, gongs, xylophones, blocks and yes, contrabassoon blats, contrasted with tuttis of Hollywood sweep, Baverstamomania abided.

Form your own critique after listening to this embedded performance excerpt at the right.

F. Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.

*Not everyone is sufficiently familiar with Nietzsche to interpret him properly. Nietzsche’s tone is often grandiose, abrasive and annoying. So I think it’s important to clarify that the “superman” whom he promotes is really just each person’s “better self” — creative self, individual self, rooted in past grandeur but able to go forth with confidence and blaze his/her best trail. This is how James Conant, who is one of today’s best Nietzsche scholars, interprets him, pointing out Nietzsche’s fondness for Emerson. Both advocate that we strive for personal perfection. The idea is that democracy must help each and every human being thrive and aim for excellence, not drag everyone down to the lowest common denominator.  (Anne Davenport)

And if you have an appetite for score analysis, watch Baverstam’s pandemic video while referring to his structural precis:

According to the composer, “The piece can be thought of as a tone poem about a hero’s journey, development, personal growth/morphing, and victory, the classic tale. I didn’t write it with all this in mind, I just followed the musical logic.”

First Movement Allegro Fantasia:

Opening introduction of main theme (hero’s theme) plus second theme 1:30
Cello entrance main theme 3:07 
Transition to second theme area (perhaps love theme) 5:30
Development setting forth on a journey  6:30
First metamorphosis, main theme distorted (conflict) 8:10
Reflection, journey continues  9:47
More reflection 10:58, last ditch effort at main theme again 11:54
Finally cello solo plays core of 2nd  theme only previously played in the intro 12:33
Cadenza (monologue) and conclusion, “End of Act I”

Second movement Moderato Mysterioso – Andante Tranquillo:

Opening mysterious and dark, foreshadowing doom of third movement.
Transitions into a sort of Aria 17:03
A respite from storminess, time stops, perhaps the moment of growth for the hero
Darkness lingers however somewhat within this movement, especially with the Tam-tam rolls, 23:40

Third movement Moderato Tragico – Allegro Passacaglia*:

Introduction opens with a continuation from the foreshadowing of the second movement. sort of faux 12-tone style, using atonal in a tonal context maybe  26:36
Orchestra introduction to hero’s new theme  28:20
Second theme, passacaglia style  29:06
Breath before the storm  30:17
Development, another journey 30:52
Unforeseen conflict/battle duel  32:06
Cadenza with orchestral accompaniment  34:20
Return of 12-tone style, yearning searching  36:13
Main resolution 37:30 hero’s transformation complete.
Coda, celebration 37:45
Moral of the story,” main message 39:44
… did the hero really learn???… or did he remain the same?

*I call it a Passacaglia, but it is not actually a passacaglia. I just think that the main themes sound like something that could be used in a passacaglia, and I feel like I allude to that mantra-ish repetitive style throughout the third movement. 

**A polyrythm example below shows how the cellist must fit his 3 triplets (nine beats) into the 4 of the orchestra
“Here the meter is 3/4 but the orchestra is feeling in 4/4, conductor is in 2. And solo cello is playing three sets of triplets for a nontuplet. Main theme and second theme are playing simultaneously.”


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