8 p.m. March 16, Turner Recital Hall, Blair School of Music
For tickets, call 322-7651
Felix Wang came to the Blair School of Music in 1999 with impressive credentials for a man who looks much younger than his actual age. Since receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1991 and his doctorate in 1998, he has won lots of competitions and given lots of performances all around the country, playing mostly chamber music. He comes to Blair to fill the cello chair in the Blair String Quartet, and he comes, we are told, as the winner of a very demanding series of auditions.
Wang has played very well with the quartet, but he remains the rookie on the team. And though the team has played well since he joined, it canand surely willplay much better as he and the other players develop what a famous football coach used to call “oneness.” Moreover, as a player with the BSQ, he has not stood alone in the spotlight. But that’s where he will stand this Friday, when he offers a program of music for unaccompanied cello.
The announced program promises a triple delight: Listeners will get to hear a virtuoso player show what he can do on his own; they’ll be shown the range and versatility of an instrument commonly known merely as a stripe in an orchestral plaid; and they’ll get to hear how three master composersJ.S. Bach, Benjamin Britten, and Zoltán Kodalyhave used that virtuosity and versatility to make the violin’s chunky cousin raise up beautiful buildings all by itself.
The cello deserves more attention than it gets. When played with a bow, it sounds more like a human baritone than perhaps any other instrument. It can rejoice or plead or moan or groan in infinitely sustainable lines. It produces also a full resonant throb when plucked, so that it can morph instantly into staccato percussion. The uncanny power of the violin, in the hands of, say, Paganini, led some to call it a demonic instrument. A cello, in the hands of Mstislav Rostropovich or Yo-Yo Ma, has a comparable power: It casts spells in an unknown tongue.
Like all members of its family, it is devilishly hard to play. It has no frets, as a guitar does, to mark pitch intervals. The player simply has to build into muscle memory just where the pitch-points are on the neck. If the instrument is played solo, another difficulty looms: The bridge is curved to allow one string to be played at a time, and because of that curvature, no more than two strings may be played at once. Thus, on any of the violin family, an interval can be sounded, but not a chordexcept as an arpeggio. Thus, in solo playing, special tact and skill are required to establish tonality and to identify modulations. This puts special constraints on a composer as well: If the composer is a man of genius, he may make those constraints work to the music’s advantage.
The three on this evening’s program certainly did. The last two flourished in the mid-20th centurythe Englishman Britten died in 1976, the Hungarian Kodaly in 1967. In cello-writing, both may be seen as scions of Bach (1685-1750), who opens the program. Bach was perhaps the most prolific composer on record. Because he earned his bread as a church musician, most of what he wrote was for organ and for voices. But he wrote some wonderful secular work as wellincluding six suites for solo cello. In his suites, according to the Grove Dictionary, Bach set “such a standard as to compel all others to be measured against it.”
A suite (also called a partita) is simply a set of about half a dozen movements, commonly derived from dance forms, written in the same key, with varying tempos and meters. It’s as if today a composer put together a foxtrot, a waltz, a samba, a polka, a tango, and a Charleston to make one composition. The suite encourages a composer to display the full range of his inventivenessand, in writing for the cello, the full range of the instrument’s capabilities.
When Bach wrote his cello suites, the instrument was considered much inferior to the now nearly extinct viola da gamba. Nobody knows what moved Bach to write them, or much about their playing history. Even so, in Stephen Daw’s words, Bach’s writing for the cello is “characteristically authoritative”: In “one dramatic creative gesture” about 1720, he made the cello the peer of any other instrument.
Wang will lead off his evening with the first Bach suite, in G major. It is a poised composition that foreshadows classicism and embodies the cosmopolitan mastery of a man who never left Germany: It embraces dances ranging from the stately sarabande out of Mexico by way of Spain to the vigorous gigue (or jig) out of Ireland by way of France, and includes dances from Poland, Germany, and Italy, all distilled through the sophisticated alembic of his genius. And all this is to be realized by one person using a bow and four strings stretched across a box.
The first Bach suite will be followed by the third (and last) by Britten, best known for his operas and his choral/orchestral works. But Britten’s friendship with Russian cellist Rostropovich led him to write five works for celloincluding three suites for cello alone. His stimulus was the Russian virtuoso’s playing of the Bach suites. Britten, for his part, emulates Bach but does not imitate him. He divides his suite into nine short movements, all based on four Russian themes that appear in “pre-echoes” throughout the suite before being played in succession to end the last movement. The Britten suite is pervaded with dark undercurrents of powerful Slavic emotion, in contrast with the lucid sinewy energy of the earlier Bach.
The evening is to conclude with the Sonata for Cello by Kodaly. Yo-Yo Ma has said of this composition, “Not since the Bach suites did someone stretch the limits of the cello as much as Kodaly did.” This music is indeed masterful and powerful stuff, in form and in substance. Kodaly, together with Bela Bartók, traveled extensively in the hinterlands of Eastern Europe soaking up authentic folk music. “Hungarian culture is an eternal struggle,” Kodaly wrote, “between tradition and Western culture.” On one hand he saw the savage brutality of the Tatars, and on the other Bach and Palestrina. He spent his life trying to bring these worlds together. The cello sonata is one of his most successful efforts. The sophisticated musical language is a distillation of that raw folk substance. The solo cello voice is by turns darkly lyrical, intensely contemplative, austerely constrictive, and joyously soulful.
It’s hard to imagine any cellist undertaking a more ambitious program. This music is authentically tremendous, reaching from the achingly tender to the intensely seismic. Felix Wang played a portion of his program on public radio last week. If he plays the whole program as well as he played that part of it, listeners going out of the recital hall will not be the same as when they came in.
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