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.