New Directions Cello Festival 2006

by Terence Guzwa

What could be more pleasant than a long, leisurely, sunny weekend on a beautiful, green University campus in the summertime? A cello festival on that leisurely, sunny weekend on a beautiful, green University campus in the summertime! The 12th annual New Directions Cello Festival that was held at Sacramento State University on June 9-11, 2006, that is.

This was the first time the New Directions Cello Association has held the festival in my neighborhood, California. For the past three years it was held at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. So on that Friday morning, after completing some family obligations, I tossed my old beater in the car dashed the 450 miles.

I arrived in time for Chris White's workshop Playing Over Big Band Changes. Improvising a solo on a pentatonic scale over continuous bars of G minor? Ok, I was willing to try that, but then we were expected to follow chord changes every bar! And what's with this augmented 5th, flatted 9th, augmented 13th stuff? Ah, but Chris gave us a system for approaching it. Maybe with practice I'll zip through those changes next time.

Joel Cohen, cellist for Quartet San Francisco, led the Cello Big Band. We had a rehearsal each day, and the concert Sunday afternoon. In my limited orchestral experience, when the notes come too fast one can always get by playing just the downbeat of each measure. Cello Big Band nixed that strategy: 7/4, 9/8 (2+2+2+3) and mixed meters. What's worse, the 4/4 pieces had scarcely any notes directly on a down beat. That first rehearsal was mighty discouraging.

Yoshiro Kiddawa, billed as "Yoshi, the Samurai Cellist," launched Friday's evening concert. For me, the appellation "Samurai Cellist" evokes memories of the late John Belushi, but Yoshi's not a comic. Yoshi plays sophisticated cool jazz expertly, but with a sense of mischievousness. No words, for he speaks no English. Yet he more than makes up for it with eye contact and inviting facial expressions to draw the audience in. As sections unfold, he layers sounds with a looping machine, smiling as the loops unfold as if he's sharing a secret. And Yoshi signs every piece at the end with a surprise --- perhaps gentle, perhaps jolting.

Barry Phillips, with his wife Shelley on harp and winds, had the daunting task of following Yoshi. More different approaches to cello could hardly be imagined. Whereas Yoshi's natural milieu would be an urbane nightclub, the setting for the Phillip's performance would be more at home in rustic lodgings in a forest, sheltering us from long nights, icy temperatures, and of course, the trolls. What was missing was the crackling fireplace (So bring it next time, Barry!). Whereas Yoshi creates fullness with adroit use of electronics, Phillips creates fullness in a decidedly old-fashioned way, through the sympathetically vibrating strings of his open-tuned and hardanger-tuned 5-string cellos. Whereas Yoshi's music has a straight-ahead be-bop drive, the Phillips' music is gently and easily propelled by folksy dance rhythms. Yet both performances had this in common: Each time the volume dropped, many an audience foot was caught tapping.

Regrettably, I missed the Quartet San Francisco performance with Joel Cohen on cello. I had some urgent calls to return. I did get to hear folks rave about it as they returned to the dorm. Ah, you blink and you miss something.

Daytime on Saturday was workshop after workshop. My picks included How to Make Cello Playing Easier and Play without Pain by Victor Sazer, Going Bowless by Linsday Mac, Scottish Fiddling for Cellists by Natalie Haas, Norwegian Harmonic Series Tune by Barry Phillips, Celtic Grooves by Renata Bratt, and Real Groove with Pizzicato by Yoshi, all of which meant missing something else. Lunch? Too busy, that had to wait a day.

One thing you should know right away about the workshops: You might be sitting next to the "star" that performed on stage last night, or will perform that night. Whether you're a beginner, expert, or in-between-er, you're all in it together.

Half-heartedly I dragged myself to Saturday's Cello Big Band rehearsal and you know what? It wasn't as hard as it seemed the day before. Hey, maybe I could almost do this! Saturday's evening concert started off with Lindsay Mac, who has been featured on the cover of the February 2006 Strings Magazine. Mac is, above all, an original and poignant storyteller. She just happens to tell her stories in songs she writes herself, while accompanying herself with a big ol' acoustic cello strapped around her neck. Her accompaniments are built solely from various flavors of pizzicato: strums, plunks, and finger-picks in assorted combinations. Yet she accompanies each of her entirely different songs so entirely differently.

Following Mac, electric cellist and vocalist Jami Sieber, assisted by a percussionist and a keyboardist, put on a remarkable multi-media show. The show told of experiences and feelings improvising with the Thai Elephant Orchestra. This was really unlike anything I could have imagined. While Sieber plays electric cello and has received the Northwest Area Music Association (NAMA) award for Best Rock Instrumentalist, this is not your father's rock 'n roll! Its mellow, rich, new-age harmonies and hypnotic rhythms literally doth hath charms to soothe savage beasts; certainly the immense but placid beasts in the large screen video. The elephants (and human audience) happily swayed with the music, followed the cello bow with their trunks (not the humans), and had, literally, a rocking good time.

For many, the next act was the greatly anticipated high point of the festival: cellist Natalie Haas and Scottish fiddler Alasdair Frazier. As soon as those first hard-driven, relentlessly pulsating bass notes thundered from Ms. Haas' slight and diminutive arm, the whoops, shouts, and hollers began. The audience jumped to its feet and stayed standing and stamping nearly the whole of the remaining hour and a half. Folks were dancing in the aisles. One took to wildly dancing on stage. Even Mr. Frazier was caught up in the frenzy; racing through the aisles, raising his fiddle and bow above his head, shouting at the top of his lungs, "JUST CELLO! WE WANT MORE CELLO!!!" Ok, this was not like any string recital I'd seen before.

Energy like that doesn't dissipate just because someone turned the stage lights off. Jam sessions went on in the dorms all night. When I got up somewhere around 7 AM, folks were still jamming, including Frazier and Haas, right there in the dorm lobby. And, umm, well, to be honest, they looked like they had been up all night, too.

At Sunday breakfast I chatted with another attendee. I learned he was a cello teacher who had come to NDCA festivals for years now. He told me he found the festivals unique and special for one reason: No ego. No "stars." No unspoken competition. Everyone is different and that's ok because everyone has something to learn from somebody else. Yoshi is totally unlike Barry, who's totally unlike Lindsay, who's totally unlike Jami…

Sunday morning was the last of the Cello Big Band rehearsals. Well how about that! 7/4 and 9/8 were falling into place. Figures that were so totally beyond me Friday afternoon were not so formidable after all. Rough spots, yes, but overall it was coming together.

The last of the featured performers, Sue Schlotte, took us into the world of the avant garde (Like New York, a nice place to visit, but…). Her show included a semi-improvised piece by eight volunteer attendees. "Hey, that's one of my teacher's other students improvising up there," I noted. She's got more guts than I do, that's for sure.

The Cello Big Band performance wrapped up the festival. Time to go home, already, as we soberly packed up. The good news is we hope to see each other next year.




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