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Music review: Rohan de Saram at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall

May 16, 2010 |  7:48 pm

Cellist Rohan de Saram, born in Britain to Sri Lankan parents, may be best known for his tenure as a member of the Arditti Quartet between 1979 and 2005. But before he became part of that elite group specializing in modern music, de Saram, 71, knew his way around the standard classical repertory. He returned to his musical roots Saturday at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall in a nearly all-Baroque concert with Sri Lanka-born harpsichordist Preethi de Silva.

In this latest offering by the early music ensemble Con Gioia, founded by de Silva in 1982 (she is also its music director), works by J.S. Bach, Pietro Locatelli and Luigi Boccherini felt comfortable next to the U.S. premiere of Delhi-born composer Param Vir’s “…beyond the reach of the world…,” a riveting 2009 solo cello piece, and three modernist works for solo harpsichord written by de Silva.

Like his teacher Pablo Casals, de Saram’s powerful expressiveness employs little vibrato. His grainy sound suited Bach’s Sonata in D major, with de Silva’s delicate accompaniment providing essential support for de Saram’s cello.

Locatelli’s Caprice in D major for solo violin, transcribed by de Saram, displayed the cellist’s fierce concentration and virtuoso technique. Like the Bach, it was another case of old music sounding new. At one point in de Silva’s three Pieces for Harpsichord Solo, a blending of South Asian, Baroque and 20th-century influences, she drummed on each side of the fragile-sounding instrument.

But the night belonged to de Saram, who returned for a compelling account of Bach’s Suite No. 3 for solo cello. His tone was a bit rough in the Prelude, but in a musician of such restrained eloquence it served to intensify the character of his sound. As a conductor, Bach was described by a contemporary as being “full of rhythm in every part of his body.” For de Saram, it was his mouth, so constantly in motion that it once prompted a critic to write that it was “as if he were tasting the notes as he produced them.”

After intermission, de Saram and de Silva returned with passionate readings of Boccherini’s Sonata in A major and Bach’s Sonata in G minor. In between came Param Vir’s “… beyond the reach of the world …” This moving 16-minute solo, given a transcendent performance by de Saram, was inspired by 22-year-old Danish Resistance fighter Kim Malthe-Bruun, who was tortured and executed by the Nazis in 1945. Percussive effects suggested a clock ticking down, while ghostly figurations deepened this memorial to one person’s heroic and horrendous ordeal. Then, de Saram’s extraordinary dynamic control turned his cello into a whispering soul until only silence remained.

-- Rick Schultz

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