Adventures around town with the noble and profound cello
Although the cello stuffily has been called the instrument noblest and most profound in tone of the violin family, it has an incorrigible habit of showing up in the darnedest places. And noble and profound a multitude of notable cellists were during the recent 10-day festival in the formal settings of USC, Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Colburn School. But the festival — male-dominated, East Coast- and Euro-centric — paid little attention to what makes the local unconventional cello scene meaningful.
That is not to say that the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival last month didn’t do its considerable part to raise local cello consciousness, even winning a proclamation from the city of Los Angeles. Soloists, students and press came from around the country and the world for concerts and master classes that went on exhaustively, day and night, and covered a wide range of repertory.
But cello adventures are elsewhere. For instance, the opportunity to hear the extraordinary Rohan de Saram play a solo cello movement from Lou Harrison’s “Rhymes With Silver” in the uniquely resonant straw bale house the great California composer built for himself in Joshua Tree is as authentic a West Coast cello experience as exists. But to do so would have meant forgoing the Piatigorsky finale.
The espresso machine audibly expressed itself during the performance. Street noise invaded the room, since the front door was open, allowing smokers a chance to light up and listen. A bathroom stood next to the makeshift stage, and it was in use all the while music played. At one point during the evening’s program, two young women holding hands coyly entered it together. On the bulletin board were advertisements for yoga, drum lessons and HIV testing, as well as a call for a general strike on May 1.
Shostakovich in this environment proved startlingly subversive. The performers clearly understood that drama, not finesse, was needed to make an impression, and I found it remarkably easy to imagine what it must have been like to hear such revolutionary music in a dissident Soviet setting, an experience nearly impossible to re-create in a polite concert hall.
The Piatigorsky festival may have startlingly overlooked women cellists (with only one out of the 24 soloists), but we have the Du Pré ensemble to also thank for reminding us of the hugely important role women play in the cello world.
In fact, one of the great innovators of modern cello techniques, Frances-Marie Uitti, happened to appear at REDCAT less than a week after the Piatigorsky finale upstairs at Disney. A pioneer of playing with two bows to make robust sonorities, she has also championed Los Angeles composers, and on her program was the premiere of an entrancing, tranquil small cello concerto, “A Folio of Large and Small Worlds Ending” by the L.A. composer Michael Jon Fink.
Earlier this season, Maya Beiser was at UCLA to premiere a new piece by David Lang. Joan Jeanrenaud, the former cellist of the Kronos Quartet and now a compelling composer, came down from the Bay Area to present her music at the Southern California Institute of Architecture as part of Pacific Standard Time. And at Harrison House, Wendy Sutter has played Philip Glass’ “Songs and Poems” for solo cello that Glass wrote for her in 2007.
Glass’ “Songs” is a Minimalist’s take on Bach’s cello suites, which stand at the very heart of the instrument’s solo cello repertory. A special event of the Piatigorsky was a traditional marathon concert of the six suites featuring six notable cellists, with the penetrating veteran Hungarian soloist, Miklós Perényi, and the exciting young French soloist, Jean-Guihen Queyras, as standouts.
But where was Charles Curtis? He is the Charles of Minimalist founder La Monte Young’s “Just Charles & Cello in the Romantic Chord” and on faculty of UC San Diego. Curtis has just released a CD of Bach’s Suites Nos. 1, 3 and 4, called “Bach: An Imaginary Dance.” On it he adds the tabla and organ accompaniment. The drums and diapason drones supply a bit of a New Age-y vibe, but the performances are intense and the sonic flavors are found in a daring fusion. If the cello really is so noble and profound — and it is — there is no need to only play it safe.
-- Mark Swed
Photo: Antonio Mostacci at the Library Coffeehouse, Long Beach, Saturday night. Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times.