Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Halo of Sound

When I began my exploration of contemporary classical music, I didn’t have the least idea what to expect.  For the most part, I suspected I’d find it hard to grasp and impossible to enjoy, but I was determined to give it a try.

In the grip of that determination, I discovered a concert in the offing in a nearby town.  The program, by a group I’d never heard of called Contemporaneous, included work by six composers.  Of the six, I knew only two:  Philip Glass, whose music I don’t care for, and Arvo Pärt, whose music I quite like.

To prepare myself, I looked up the four composers I didn’t know.  I was entranced by Jesse Alexander Brown’s Through the Motions on first hearing, but had misgivings about the other three.  I forewarned my mate (who didn’t share my curiosity but is a good sport), advising I thought we’d enjoy the first half, but the rest might be difficult, at best.

It was an evening of surprises, as it happened (chief among them, Brown’s delightful piece; I hope to hear more from him as time goes on).  I haven’t changed my general view of Glass, but that night, Contemporaneous convinced me there was merit in his String Quartet No. 5, not least because of Dylan Mattingly’s passion for the piece, in which he played the hell out of the cello (snapping hairs on his bow left and right).

The biggest surprise, though, was in the program’s second half.  While the Nelson and Fefferman pieces have passed into the ether, Julia Wolfe’s Believing has stayed with me since.  Wolfe has Contemporaneous, and particularly Katharine Dooley, the young woman who played cello, to thank for that.  My first reaction was simple-minded, but it served to bridge the gap:  How was it, I wondered, Dooley could sing so sweetly and at the same time play her cello with such panache?

Hearing a piece in live performance changes so much about the way we hear.  In my concert-going and CD listening, I’d not paid much attention to the cello.  I went in mostly for concertos that featured piano or violin.  But when I heard Mattingly play Glass so passionately and Katharine Dooley make the cello sizzle in a piece that was a foreign object to me, I realized I’d been missing out.

I thought back to what composer John Metcalf had said about hearing the cello on its own, its "halo of sound."

I thought, too, about Metcalf describing the thrill of seeing a young Korean girl play the most difficult of Bach’s Cello Suites:

Not long after visiting with Metcalf, I spotted a book by Eric Siblin, a Montreal-based pop music critic.  His journey, recounted in the book, started when he went “to hear a cellist I’d never heard of play music I knew nothing about.”
From my seat in the Royal Conservatory concert hall, the lone figure producing this massive sound with such modest resources seemed to defy the musical odds.  Only one instrument, and one anchored to a very low register, the cello appeared unequal to the task, as if some supreme composer had devised an overambitious score, an ideal text, with little regard for the crude vehicle that was to carry it out.
The music he heard was Bach’s Cello Suites.  He came away entranced and wondered why the Suites languished until their rediscovery by Pablo Casals.  Following the path of the Suites from Bach to Casals, he answered his own question in an engaging and informative book.

Even that first evening, Siblin traveled a long way.  As he watched and listened, he “was struck by the bulkiness of [the cellist’s] instrument”
. . . bringing to mind some lumbering peasant from a medieval string kingdom, rough-hewn and primitive, nowhere near sophisticated enough for the refined music it was playing.  But on closer examination I could see the intricately carved wooden scroll and the curvaceous sound holes, shaped like some exquisite baroque time signature.  And what was coming out of those sound holes was music more earthy and ecstatic than anything I’d ever heard.
Silbin reminded me again of Metcalf’s “halo of sound.”  When I listen to music for the cello now, that's what I hope for.  When I hear it, it's thrilling.  Every time.

What about you?  Do you have a favorite piece for the cello (or two or three or ten)?

An Eclectic Listening List

Johann Sebastian Bach, Cello Suites, Prelude from Suite No. 1 (Yo-Yo Ma on cello)

Benjamin Britten, Symphony for Cello and Orchestra (excerpt from the first movement, Mstislav  Rostropovich, to whom the piece was dedicated, on cello)

Gavin Bryars, Farewell to Philosophy (first movement, Julian Lloyd Webber on cello)

Qigang Chen, Reflet d'un temps disparu (excerpt, Yo-Yo Ma on cello)

Edward Elgar, Cello Concerto (Adagio, Jacqueline Du Pré on cello)

John Garth, Cello Concerto in B-flat (recommended by Friko; Richard Tunnicliffe on cello)

Zoë Keating, Tetrishead (Keating on cello)

Julia Kent, Tempelhof (Kent on cello)

Zoltán Kodály, Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 8 (recommended by Mark Kerstetter; first movement, Janos Starker on cello)

Arvo Pärt, Fratres (Tibor Parkanyi on cello)

Franz Schubert, Arpeggione Sonata (recommended by David Nice; first movement, Rostropovich on cello, Britten on piano)

Dmitri Shostakovich, Cello Concerto No. 1 (first movement, Mischa Maisky, taught by Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom the concerto was written, on cello)

Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Fantasia for Cello (first movement, Claes Gunnarsson on cello)

Stefan Weisman, Everywhere Feathers (Jody Redhage voice and cello)

For Spotify playlists of compositions featuring the cello, click on Halo of Sound and Halo of Sound-Bach Cello Suites.

Last not least, to hear Contemporaneous, play Julia Wolfe's Believing, click here.  (Dooley starts singing at about 5:36; for the Contemporaneous video of the same performance, click here.)

To hear Jesse Alexander Brown's Through the Motions, click here and scroll down to the head of the listening list. In this piece, flute takes center stage, in a lovely, lyrical performance by Bard student Joshua Tanner.

Credits:  The quotations from Eric Silbin are from his book, The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece.  The videos of Metcalf and Contemporaneous playing Believing, the still at the head of the post, and the photograph of Silbin's book are mine.


David said...

Don't forget what many, including Rostropovich's widow Galina Vishnevskaya, think of as his greatest recording - the unbelievable partnership with Britten as pianist in Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata. That's what we chose to play on Radio 3 on the day we heard of Slava's death, and I was so glad to see it cited as the milestone it is in John Bridcut's stunning documentary.

And I'm glad to see the Weinberg Fantasia gets a mention. What a great melody...

Suze said...

'It was an evening of surprises'

More often than one might guess, an evening out presents a person with unexpected joys. I like the determination with which you seek to penetrate and explore the world of classical music in an informed manner-- the better to appreciate not only its finer points but what I like to call 'secrets being told in plain sight.'

Britta said...

Thank you, dear Susan, for that enlightening post! You are really getting to the depth of music - I am impressed. Elgar I love - to modern music I still have to find my way.

Mark Kerstetter said...

That contemporaneous performance you were lucky enough to see up close and film kicks ass - really engaging composition played with great energy.

I'm listening to the Arvo Pärt piece you linked to right now. Can't thank you enough for turning me on to this composer - totally love it.

Bach's Cello Suites played by Yo Yo Ma is one of my favorite recordings. In fact, I may have told you this before, but Bach is like GOD to me - the closest thing to artistic perfection I know of.

Have you seen this stunning video of Janos Starker playing the Kodály Cello Sonata?

Maggie Asfahani Hajj said...

I have not really been a fan of the contemporary stuff, but thank you so much for opening my mind and ears and heart to it. I am always on the search for new things to love!

My biggest (musical) regret is not taking up the cello when I was younger. It is my favorite instrument, by far, but I chose violin because it wasn't as heavy! What a ridiculous reason!!

Friko said...

I love your enthusiasm, although I am not wholly able to follow you into contemporary music. Talking about Bach, now there's a different matter altogether One of our favourite cellists to play the suites is Richard Tunnicliffe, a friend of ours. (He has recorded them).

Susan, I don't understand the phrase "playing the hell out of the cello and breaking strings right and left.

Breaking a string during a concert can happen, of course, but the player would have had some notice and replaced the string beforehand, Replacing, tuning and waiting for the tuning to take effect takes time and would hold up the concert considerably.

Hairs on a bow can go and would cause less upheaval (you'd have to stop and break off the two ends). Bows are frequently rehaired but a bit of passion could cause you to snap a few; but you'd have to make sure you didn't snap too many, the bow could, in theory, get too thin to play.

However, the ensemble was fortunate indeed to have had you in the audience, there can't be many people as whole-heartedly enthralled as you are.

Susan Scheid said...

I will be responding to comments later this week, but wanted to jump in right now to thank Friko for spotting an error, which I've now corrected.

Susan Scheid said...

Responding a bit on the early side this week, as I have a very special visitor coming day after tomorrow and won’t be on line much for a week or so. I’ll look forward to catching up with everyone thereafter. Also, responding in 2 parts, as I'ver overreached the space constraints again.

David: Thank you so much for the terrific, and historic, addition of the Schubert played by Rostropovich and Britten. I was thrilled to be able to find it online and add it to the listening list and sidebar. And thank you not only that, but for noting the Bridcut documentary! How did I miss this? I went scurrying back to find your Arts Desk review and have written off to Bridcut’s site to find out if/when the DVD may become available in the States. Ah, Rostropovich. I never got a chance to hear him play cello, but we did see him conduct Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto the year before he died. I know that conducting wasn’t his forte, but the passion for Shostakovich, when at the end of the concert, he held the score high over his head in homage, I won’t ever forget that. (FYI, I learned from Second Cut that it takes special equipment to play Brit DVDs in the US. Too bad on that, but I am continuing to scout for an available copy of Munk’s The Passenger here.)

Suze: Your comment is so, so apt. No question, there are many secrets being told in plain sight in the contemporary classical music realm. By the way, recalling the piece you identified in response to an earlier post (and thank you again for that!), I think you might enjoy Arvo Pärt. Sometime, if you have a spare moment, give Fratres a listen—or, better yet, try his Spiegel im Spiegel here and let me know what you think (you are NOT obliged to like either of them, so be frank, but I’d love if you’d say why, up or down)!

Britta: Ah, so you like Elgar! Enigma Variations, maybe? But then there is so much of his to enjoy. Knowing that, if I could entice you just once to try something, I recommend John Metcalf’s Mapping Wales (particularly the string quartet version on his CD Paths of Song—the Vivace is the background music to the video at the bottom of the post here), or Peter Sculthorpe’s Song of the Hills from My Country Childhood (in our household, we thought this to be very Elgar-like). Both are lovely, melody-filled, tonal pieces—not the sort of music that’s been delivered to us by the Darmstadt bunch and frightened everybody off (in my opinion, anyway). I’d be curious to see whether you like the Weinberg at all (playable from the sidebar). I find it heavenly, though you aren’t required to, as you know.

Susan Scheid said...

Mark: I can’t tell you how delighted I am to be able to return the favor of enjoyment of something new; for your gift of Ashbery to me, how pleased I am that you are enjoying Pärt. And as for contemporaneous playing Believing, indeed they do “kick ass.” So, so much fun to watch (even though, since I was in the first row, there is a bit of a sea of music stands with which to contend). Last, not least, I did not know the Kodály Cello Sonata (there is, as must be apparent, much, much more that I don’t know than that little bit I’ve come to know) and am so pleased you noted it. As you can see, it, too, has been added to the sidebar and the listening list.

Maggi: Too funny that you passed on the cello because it was too big—just think, you might have been the next Zoë Keating (see listening list . . .). I can well imagine that logic at a certain point in life. I passed on flute because I thought the mouth position was weird (I also was no good at it, which may have had a little something to do with it). I’m curious to know what contemporary stuff you haven’t been a fan of—perhaps you’ll reveal that in due course? What I’ve been surprised and gratified to discover is the music is all over the map, so no matter what you like/don’t like, there is something for every set of musical taste buds, or so it seems to me, anyway. I’ll be continuing to watch for the place where our musical paths might intersect!

Friko: Found Tunnicliffe! I’ve added him to the sidebar and the listening list—what a beauty from the Baroque, and so beautifully played. I can well imagine how stunning his playing on the Bach Suites is bound to be. And as for contemporary vs. the old masters, I seem to recall you’ve “traversed the line” for Pärt and Tavener, so hey, who knows what’s next?

David said...

Re Slava and Shostakovich, I must add that though he didn't have a great conducting technique, the LSO got to understand what he wanted. So I also count his last performance with them of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony as deep beyond belief (this too you can also pick up on CD for very little).

I play a lot of American DVDs here on a multi-region player, not expensive but getting rarer as they try to catch us out. Probably by and large not so necessary vice-versa (you, after all, have the superb Criterion Collection to make it worth our while)

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