BACH TO BRAZIL - A CELLOBRATION

by David Abrams

Friday, September 26, 2003, the One World Symphony under the baton of its brilliant, young conductor, David Hong, gave a resplendent and poetic concert in the charming St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn, New York. The concert was what Hong called a "cellobration", since it featured works for solo cello, cello and piano, dance and compositions for a cello choir of One World Symphony's entire section of 15 cellists with another cellist driving all the way from Urbana, Illinois, and a 17th cellist flying in from Hunstville, Alabama.

Now in its third season, One World Symphony is a group of highly regarded up-and-coming musicians and vocalists from the four corners of the globe and representing the wide diversity of the world's cultures, ethnicities, and languages. Korean-born David Hong explains that One World Symphony was founded to program music inspired by different cultures to increase musical diversity in the concert hall, audience awareness of music from all parts of the world, promote music by living composers and offer fresh interpretations of the classic repertoire.

"My idea in this year's Embracing the Influence series of concerts," the conductor explains, "is to examine the nature of 'influence' in contemporary music by juxtaposing new works with those in the accepted canon. The first part of this concert, for example, illustrates the lineage from Bach to Brazil. Considered to be among the finest examples of solo instrumental composition, Bach's cello suites continue to move and inspire, influencing centuries of audiences and composers. So where else, " Hong asks, "could our program begin but with one of these epochal works, the intimate and intense Cello Suite in C Minor?" He points out that, "hundreds of years later and a continent away, Heitor Villa-Lobos, the great Brazilian composer, penned his homage to Bach's genius, the lyrical and inventive Bachianas Brazilieras No. 5 for soprano and cello orchestra. The final link in this chain of association is a New York premiere by Robert Below, Homage to Villa-Lobos for Cello Orchestra, an expansive and original tonal reflection on the Brazilian master.

In the second half of the program," Hong continues, "we begin with a movement from one of the most significant and powerful chamber works of the 20th century, Quartet for the End of Time, written by the French composer Olivier Messiaen, when he was a prisoner of war in a concentration camp during World War II. Accentuating our performance of the "Infinitely Slow" movement for cello and piano will be the world-premiere choreography by Takehiro Ueyama and dancers from the Paul Taylor Dance Company. The program ends with a work by the important contemporary composer, Joan Tower, Hommage Messiaen, a literal tribute to the "Infinitely Slow" movement and a profound exploration of the flow of time, ideas, and events."

Friday night's concert opened with the Bach Suite No. 5 in C Minor for solo cello played with great warmth and dynamic expression by Sophie Shao, the recent winner of the International Rostropovich Cello Competition. This suite of six movements was a powerful introduction to a concert featuring cello compositions, since Ms. Shao beautifully demonstrated how the cello with its very wide range of sounds from low bass to very high notes can sound in some ways like an entire orchestra. With total command of the instrument, Ms. Shao showed how the cello can play chords and parallel counter melodies like a guitar and piano as well as playing single, melodic lines like brass and woodwind instruments. Ms. Shao is a charismatic performer with a rich palette of tones, who kept the audience of adults and young children spellbound as she played animated movements with dramatic fluorish and slow movements, as in the Sarabande, with an intimate, whispering softness and loving tenderness.

A unique dimension of One World Symphony performances is the way Hong often speaks with the audience about the different compositions and there is often a short 10 or 15 minute form of audience interaction with the orchestra. Before playing the next piece, he told the audience that the composer of Bachianas Brazilieras No. 5 was a cellist and guitarist with a great love for Bach's music. Hong briefly demonstrated two main musical characteristics of the piece with the orchestra playing a very "cello" excerpt and another where the cello orchestra sounds more like a guitar. He then asked the orchestra to play two different approaches to the same crucial part in the work -- one the way the composer instructed, the other a different way. It was very enjoyable for the audience that their vote and that of the musicians was almost unanimously for the "different way" for the most natural and convincing way to play this important part of the piece.

Soprano Melody Alesi sang the well-known Aria - Cantilena movement of Bachianas Brazilieras No. 5 with the 17 cellists often playing pizzicato accompaniment to the alluring melody and a flowing cello solo by Sophie Shao. Soprano Jennifer Greene then sang the more spirited Danza Martelo, where the cello orchestra often sounds like a guitar playing Brazilian dances. Hong's interpretation of this demanding work brought an exquisite beauty to the undulating, plaintive first movement and glorious energy to the joyful exhiliration of the second movement. The cello choir's playing of Below's Homage to Villa Lobos featured an outstanding cellist from Alabama, Elizabeth Loy, with marvelously deep and full tone in this unusual composition of fascinating dissonances, counter melodies, and a surprise ending.

A highlight of the concert was a rare opportunity to hear conductor Hong playing piano, South African cellist Simone Uranovsky on cello, and the choreography of Takehiro Ueyama with Lisa Viola, Jill Echo and Orion Duckstein of the Paul Taylor Dance Company in the performance of the "Infinitely Slow" movement from Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. The piece begins with the solitary sound of Ms. Uranovsky's cello as the dancers are lying on their backs, as if dead on the floor behind her. Gradually, Hong's slowly repeating piano chords join in like a steady heartbeat, as the dancers appear to awaken and emerge into an ever-increasing liveliness. Simone Uranovsky has a transcendent vibrato sound that sings out with extraordinary presence throughout the very long durations of the notes in this movement. Messiaen's writing for the cello in this movement also requires many large glissando and portamento shifts, which Ms. Uranovsky expresses effortlessly with perfect intonation and a continuously fluid legato.

The building progression of Hong's slowly resounding chords sound like church bells ringing for a funeral and Ms. Uranovsky's high register melody resembles the tormented human cry over the death of a loved one. Suddenly at a point of high-pitched intensity, the music breaks off with a jolting silence. However, then it quietly starts up again, and Ueyama's choreography has the dancers embracing and gracefully re-emerging into a standing affirmation with arms outstretched as if to God, as the music appears to end, stop, almost end, and then finally terminate. It was very moving for the audience to experience this spiritually uplifting composition and dance in the lovely church of St. Ann's.

Clearly, this is one of the most difficult works for the cello, because it requires the continued holding of extremely long notes without a break in the duration and quality of sound, and Ms. Uranovsky and Hong's reverent interpretation is expressed with deep feeling and sensitivity. First performed for the other inmates in his concentration camp, this movement from the Quartet for the End of Time appears to be a message of Messiaen to individuals facing their own imminent death that there is a God, and that life, beauty, meaning, and ultimately time itself can be affirmed to continue to exist ... forever.

Amy Kim, a very gifted and prize winning cellist from Korea, and pianist Yi-Heng Yang then played Tower's Hommage Messiaen. Their playing of the innovative harmonies and reflective beauty of Tower's piece had a delicate expressiveness that brought the second part of the concert to a memorable close. As an encore, the orchestra returned to play an even more beguiling and triumphant interpretation of the Bachianas Brazilieras No. 5 to a standing ovation. One audience member told Hong, "The way you and your ensemble plays, ten more times of the Villa-Lobos would have still thrilled me!"

David Hong and his colleagues of the One World Symphony are establishing a wonderful tradition of bringing creative, exciting, and high quality concerts to concert halls, churches, and nontraditional community venues in New York City. Hong explains that the different aims of One World Symphony are inter-related. "The way I present audience and orchestra musician interaction in each concert, for example, is not meant to be 'educational,' stuffy, or to show how much I know about music but to have our audience members get closer to the music and our musicians. The connection and the overall experience becomes much more fun and engaging."

The international composition of the orchestra and of its programs, the historical continuity of works of both past and present composers, and the forms of audience collaboration provide a special musical experience of "One World" together. The thought-provoking structure of the current season's "Embracing the Influence" series is also sure to raise new questions about what it means to write "modern" music for the 20th century. In addition to the "Embracing the Influence" series, One World Symphony presents large-scale works, such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and will present Mozart's Mass in C Minor this season.

You can consult their website http://www.oneworldsymphony.org for the current schedule and for further details of their forthcoming concerts in Brooklyn and Manhattan, which promise to be equally interesting and enjoyable. This is a group you do not want to miss.


Direct correspondence to the appropriate ICS Staff
Editor:
Tim Janof
Director:
John Michel
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