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Cellist Woods Holding On


Pianist Andrew Rosenblum

Seth Parker Woods commented Sunday afternoon on how George Walker’s Cello Sonata keeps a cellist on his toes. “I have found myself both smiling from sheer joy and holding on for dear life, especially as the piece nears the coda.” Along with special guest, pianist Andrew Rosenblum, Woods, last year’s recipient of the Chamber Music America Michael Jaffee Visionary Award, played the Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall in a mix of two romantics and three American moderns.

The affable Woods began softly plucking three open strings while asking us to take a few deep breaths before going straight into Calvary Ostinato from Lamentations: Black Folk Song Suite. Having already set the ostinato, or repeated musical phrase, in motion, was as unusual as it was an effective way to begin his recital. Listen! The sold-out crowd did. The completely plucked work of Coleridge Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004) from Woods was telltale. The cellist’s ample warmth and delicateness fully directed ears to his intimately varied inflections of the pizzicato. Not a pin drop could we hear in this a one-of-a-kind space Woods created.

Woods and Chicago pianist Rosenblum would prove well-matched in wistfulness and fiery-ness; but where were the Rachmaninoff goose bumps, the nostalgia? Overall, the duo projected care evidenced by extraordinary, if not undivided, attention to detail. Woods referred to the second work on the afternoon concert as one by “a titan:” Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 19 (1901). Blogs go on about an easy cello part as opposed to a difficult piano part. One could hazard a 6:1 ratio of piano to cello notes. Why this choice? Its duration is 35 minutes. One might venture to say that most would not be all that excited about hearing it again.  What might it take to bring this early writing to real life? Perhaps, for example, the Andante could have been more contained, restful, less fussy.

Rosenblum spoke about composer Jeffrey Mumford (1955-) who imagines his music being like clouds, and that the four dances for Boris actually form a theme and four variations. Most listeners would probably have thought they might had missed something without Rosenblum’s alert. “Clouds” of mid-20th-century Americanisms overlaid with clouds of 12-tone excursions also show a composer who moves somewhat freely. Closely watching the demonstrably emotional Rosenblum and listening to his sensitive pianism left us puzzled. Putting that all together still left questions about states of mind and physical sensations. What was one to feel?

Seth Parker Woods

Then again, feelings from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op. 73 appeared distant, the duo’s vision engendering lightness, playing down any emotional stirs of this or that turn of Romantic era phrase. No doubt that the two wanted us honed-in on every note.

Woods met George Walker and was able to discuss the Sonata for Cello and Piano. Woods even had the good fortune of playing it for him. Woods favors the second slow movement: it “is intertwined with echoes of blues sonorities and a feeling unrequited love.” As to the third movement “its unrelenting drive and fast meter changes really keep the duo on its toes.” The 1957 work had all that from Woods and Rosenblum.

Some further thoughts on Sunday’s show: the  booklet omitted the movements for both the Rachmaninoff and Walker sonatas; glaring reflections of two bright overhead white lights and one neon blue light on the piano lid distracted; and with the lid full stick and the cellist on the other side, listeners in the shadow of the lid could not see Woods; and, more importantly, hear him fully as we were able to with the first arrangement of instruments.

Woods tours internationally and has teaching appointments at various universities in the USA.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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