My visit to England could not have started out more perfectly. While waiting at the gate to catch my connecting flight from London to Manchester, Anner Bylsma sat next to me, purely by chance. We ended up chatting about Bach for the next half hour, me floating various arguments against the central thesis in his book, Bach, The Fencing Master, that the articulations in Anna Magdalena Bach's manuscript are intentionally varied. Bylsma shot down his detractors one by one referring to quotations from letters by Geminiani ("The bow goes up and down, up and down, not that rat shit way that is a downbow on the first beat of every bar."). Yes, the Suites are based on French dance forms, but the virtuosos of the day were Italians, who avoided starting each measure with a downbow, unlike the French. We ended up continuing the conversation in a shared cab to our hotels. He's more convinced than ever that his thesis is right.
The festival's opening concert that evening turned out to be one of many intense marathons. Raphael Wallfisch charmed some and annoyed others with the Herbert Concerto No. 2, not only because of the lesser quality of the piece (I now see why Starker once referred to it as having "traumatic" instead of dramatic content), but also because Wallfisch was all eyes and smiles with the concertmaster. Gary Hoffman was mesmerizing in Leonard Berstein's Meditations, though it was painful to watch him snap the strings on the fingerboard of the gorgeous 'Rose' Amati. Erling Blöndal Bengsston played the Walton Concerto, a piece he once performed with Walton himself, in a manner that seemed to curiously match his walk, kind of swoopy though very spirited. Janos Starker played Dohnanyi Konzertstücke with his usual remarkable facility and carefully crafted musicianship, and Boris Pergamenschikov brought the crowd to its feet with the Hindemith Concerto.
Thursday began with usual agony of having to choose which master class to attend. Having seen Starker several times in the last few years, I chose to attend Russian cellist Karine Georgian's class instead. She seemed genuinely involved with the students as people, not just as props. She encouraged the students to stop worrying about being judged if a mistake were made, and, like her former teacher, Rostropovich, used lots of imagery, often of landscapes, trying to tap into the students' creativity ("You must view the piece as if you are an eagle flying high above.") Judging by her brief demonstrations, she seems like a very imaginative artist.
Erling Blöndal Bengsston's master class provided a nice mixture of technical and musical advice. He emphasized the importance of allowing the cello to resonate as much as possible, which meant not over-pressing and lifting the bow so that chords can ring freely. He encouraged students to carefully finish each note before they start the next one, and to treat the little notes with as much care as the long ones. He suggested using all separate bows on the famous Dvorak Sextuplets, an interesting idea. He also talked often about engaging the audience in the music, "Grab the audience by the throat and say, 'Listen to me!'"
Anner Bylsma's "Vivaldi and Boccherini " workshop was endlessly amusing on many levels. His quirky and often biting sense of humor kept the crowd on edge, as did his whistling of the accompaniment to a Vivaldi Concerto, which the student played without a pianist because no piano score has been published. It seems that Bylsma commands much respect in the cello "establishment," given that the standing-room-only crowd included many big-name cellists, including Colin Carr, Boris Pergamenschikov, and David Geringas. After sharing the Geminiani quote that he shared with me at the airport, he started out the class right by knocking both conductors and pianists in the same sentence; "Where did this idiot's way come from in which we play each note equally loud? From conductors and pianists." With a crinkled nose, he went on to criticize pianos, "an instrument in which all octaves and half-steps are the same, with no ability to sustain." And he wasn't finished, since he then dug his claws into the "know-it-all" French as well, citing how one couldn't get into the Paris Conservatoire during the time of Franchomme if one used an endpin, and then, in the 1950's, how one couldn't get in if one didn't use one.
After hurling some good-natured insults, he got around to discussing music. Regarding Vivaldi, he said, "Just as you sit pretty on your note, Vivaldi does something else … His music always has the element of caricature… Vivaldi is all theater." During a discussion about Boccherini, whom he credited with pioneering the idea of playing across all four strings in thumb position, he spent an inordinate amount of time playing high up on the C string, trying to convince the audience that the tone is actually beautiful, once you get used to it. He also commented on a technical issue, "I haven't used the fourth finger in thumb position since I left the Conservatory. That's the great thing about the real world." This is a class I won't soon forget.
The evening's main concert was comprised of all contemporary pieces. Gary Hoffman and Marc Neikrug played Petrus, by Marc Neikrug, a very nice piece that called for the pianist to pluck his own strings. Ralph Kirshbaum played Narration by Nicholas Maw, and Karine Georgian played David Baker's Singer's of Songs -- Weavers of Dreams for cello and percussion, an extremely accessible piece that paints "abstract impressions" of jazz greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie. Watching the percussionist switch between 17 different instruments was endlessly entertaining. Immediately after the concert, the Yale Cellos, conducted by Aldo Parisot, charmed the audience with pieces ranging from a Corelli Concerto Grosso, to Scott Joplin's Entertainer, to Ravel's Alborado del Gracioso.
David Geringas' master class was marvelous as usual. It seems that he spends a lot of time trying to get inside the heads of composers. With Tchaikovsky, he talked about the Rococo Variations being written with Mozart in mind, that one's goal should be to discover what the composer is trying to say, and to convey the beauty he gave us. During a discussion about Hindemith Solo Sonata, he talked about how composers are always thinking forwards because they are trying to create something new, and again said, "You must convey the message of the composer." With Schumann, he emphasized the many moods in his concerto, that Schumann is never thinking about one thing at a time, and that he is manically shifting between different ideas and emotions. "Schumann is explaining his pains, hopes, and dreams to us."
The Young Artist Recital of the day, which showcases up-and-coming cellists, included Matt Haimovitz. I was most curious about him because I hadn't heard his name for quite some time and I was anxious to find out what he's been up to. In addition to teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he has his own record label, Oxingale, which recently released his second recording of the Bach Cello Suites. While clearly a cellist with technique to burn, I must confess to being taken aback by his rather liberal use of audible slides, which really stuck out in Schumann's Five Pieces in Folkstyle. Judging by the squirms of others in the audience, I wasn't alone.
Aldo Parisot's master class was hilarious. The combination of his Brazilian accent and his carefree wit made him incredibly fun to listen to. The pianist for both pieces was his wife, Elizabeth, and she was outspoken as he, making their banter yet another source of entertainment. I didn't envy the students who played for him; he covered one student's head with his handkerchief to prevent her from looking at her fingers while she played. What struck me the most was the similarity of his technical ideas to Starker's, both of whom talk a lot about eliminating points tension. Parisot seems like a marvelous teacher.
The Gala Concert of the evening ended at midnight. Remarkably, most stuck it out to the bitter end. Truls Mørk played the Beethoven C Major Sonata from memory; he was fantastic as always. Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi played a couple of contemporary pieces, one by Donald Steven and one by Joji Yuasa, and Laurence Lesser head-bobbed his way through the Barber Sonata. Joel Krosnick played the Carter Sonata, and David Geringas scratched his way through the Hindemith Three Pieces Op. 8 (why does Geringas always sound like he's playing ponticello?). The concert was only half-over at this point.
After a dinner break and 'Awards of Distinction' were presented to Erling Blöndal Bengtsson and Aldo Parisot, the concert resumed with Frans Helmerson playing the Rachmaninoff Sonata, the perfect piece for his playing style, though not the perfect piece at 11:00 pm. Then Maria Kliegel displayed incredible virtuosity in the Paganini Moses Variations and Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Figaro. Though these light-hearted pieces were just what one needed at 11:30 pm, I couldn't help but wonder why Maria Kliegel always seems to be playing such lightweight works.
The next morning started off with a fantastic master class with Frans Helmerson. He was most impressive in his ability to help students who already play their pieces breathtakingly well to reach an even deeper level. Of particular note was a young British girl, Rachel Helleur, a student of Colin Carr, who played a sizzling Dvorak Concerto. Not only was her technique impeccable, but her straight-ahead performance was so thrilling that I forgot to breathe at times. She demonstrated that you don't have to mangle a piece with overly mannered playing and tempo distortions to create an absolutely riveting performance. Keep your eye out for her.
The Young Artist Recital of the day featured Fournier Award winners of the past and present, though no first prize was actually awarded this year, only two "incentive grants." Hannah Roberts, who received the award in 1992, played the Bridge Sonata and the Martinu Variations on a Slovak Theme. Marie Bitloch, one of the "incentive grant" winners, won the audience's heart with Bloch's Three Pieces 'from Jewish Life' (one question: why does everybody play the opening triplet in 'Prayer' as an eighth note followed by two sixteenths?). Alexander Chaushian, the other "incentive grant" winner, played a solo sonata by Khudoyan and the Paganini Caprice No. 17 with lightning fast fingers that mostly hit their notes. Anybody who has to courage to a Paganini Caprice in public has my admiration.
The evening's concerto concert with the BBC Philharmonic was conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier, son of legendary French cellist, Paul Tortelier. Liwei Qin played the Barber Concerto with the utmost professional polish, less a few shaky moments. Ralph Kirshbaum played Schelomo from music, a piece that one would assume he knows by heart, but given the taxing duties of running a festival, it was understandable, I guess. Kirshbaum and Tortelier never seemed to be on the same wavelength with the piece, however. Given that Tortelier probably grew up listening to his father play it, he probably has his own very strong conception of the piece. Truls Mørk played Air by Jay Kernis, a very gentle piece that was a welcome break after the stormy Schelomo. Natalia Gutman muddled through the Dvorak Concerto, full of uncharacteristic agogic accents and technical flubs. Again, Tortelier seemed to have his own ideas about the piece. Gutman, of course, got a standing ovation, which is pretty much a given with the Dvorak. Energized by the outpouring of love from the crowd, she played a remarkably ringing and delicate interpretation of the Bourrées from the third Bach Suite; her Bach was better than her Dvorak that night!
I'm not done with Yan Pascal Tortelier. The program notes described him as "the charismatic Frenchman." If one creates charisma by repeatedly jumping above the podium and flinging one's arms to the side as if being crucified, then, yes, Mr. Tortelier is very charismatic and his reputation is well-deserved.
After the main concert, there was the obligatory mass cello ensemble, conducted by Aldo Parisot. One remarkable thing I pondered as I was melted by the gorgeous roar of cellos was how many incredible instruments were on that frighteningly crowded stage. There were at least seven Strads -- including Greenhouse's 'Paganini' -- Hoffman's 'Rose' Amati, a Goffriller or two, and a Guadagnini. I didn't notice any whole-bows being used around these instruments.
Gary Hoffman's master class was impressive as always. I don't believe he teaches anymore, which is shame, because he is so good at it! One striking thing he asked a cellist who played the first movement of the Dvorak Concerto was, "Now that we are in the 21st Century, isn't it about time that we take a fresh look at the score of the Dvorak Concerto?" He feels that the concerto has become so distorted by layers and layers of performance tradition that many do certain musical things without knowing why. For instance, why do many cellists slow down in the Appassionato section at the bottom of the first page (International Edition)?
There was one student who really unsettled me in his class. Watching her whole demeanor really saddened me because she had behaviors that remind me of what one sees in an abused dog -- quiet, cowering, shy, unexpressive, and so on. Much to my dismay I suspect the source of her behavior is her mother, whom I once spoke with. Her mother once said to me after her daughter's recital, "Wasn't she horrible?!" Ouch. After the student finished her torture session in the master class, she quickly disappeared, making me wonder if she scurried away to cry. Stage parents, beware, your actions may not be pushing your children to greater heights; instead, you may be destroying their chances of future success.
The Young Artist Recital of the day featured two remarkable cellists, Daniel Müller-Schott and Zuill Bailey. Daniel, who is being backed heavily by Anna Sophie-Mutter, waded through the Beethoven D Major Sonata, despite having a bad cold. Great timing, eh?
American cellist Zuill Bailey has a dynamic combination of attributes that I've just got to believe will result in a strong career. He's a fine musician, a fantastic technician, incredibly charming on a personal level, and unusually handsome, the ultimate package. The day before the concert he let me play his cello, a Goffriller once owned by Sascha Schneider. In order to play it well, one must relax one's weight into it as much as possible, since it takes a real in-the-string technique to pull the sound out. But once you've got it, it booms like you wouldn't believe! Zuill played the Debussy Sonata, Ginastera Pampeana No. 2, and his own arrangement of Vieuxtemps Souvenir d'Amerique (variations on 'Yankee Doodle') -- the ultimate crowd pleaser. I expect that we'll be hearing great things about Zuill Bailey in the future.
Bernard Greenhouse gave the final master class of the festival. Casals' teachings were in evidence throughout the class. Greenhouse often mentioned the need to shape phrases in a "rainbow-like" arch. He also discussed the need to articulate clearly with the left hand, which lessens the need to play louder. He said that one needs to carefully consider every phrase; it takes a little extra effort to make beautiful music.
The final concert of the RNCM Cello Festival will stay with me forever. For a devotee to the cello, nothing beats a concert in which all six Bach Suites are performed. And nothing expresses the fraternal spirit that seems to bless our instrument more clearly than a concert in which each Suite is played by a different world class cellist. One could not help but go to this concert with the understanding that there are many ways to play Bach, each beautiful in its own way. The audience's only charge was to listen with an open mind.
The performers were put in an order that highlighted their differences in approach. Contrasting performance styles -- Baroque vs. Modern -- were smartly paired up with an intermission after every two suites, giving one time to consider the deep chasm that exists between Baroque performers and those that cling to their 20th Century approaches. A question that was whispered by one audience member, but remained unanswered as it should, was "Which style is best?"
The concert started off with Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga and the G Major Suite. For some reason I was expecting a Romantic interpretation from him, so I was delighted when he came out with his Baroque bow and began playing in a delicate Baroque style. Judging by his bowings, it seemed that he plays from the Anna Magdalena Bach manuscript, a technical challenge that he conquered with seeming ease. His tone was open and free and the hall resonated with the innocence of this first suite.
Then came a relatively red-blooded performance of the c minor Suite from Danish cellist Erling Blöndal Bengsston. At first the contrast in styles between Demenga and Bengsston was rather jarring, making, for a moment, the latter seem anachronistic and rather convicting of the Modern approach, but this feeling quickly passed as I pried open my heart and did my best to understand the music from Bengsston's point of view. To be fair, his interpretation was by no means plodding, as the dance movements had a very nice lilt to them. But one was struck by his increased use of vibrato, his more in-the-string style, and his occasional Romantic clingings to certain notes. Despite my initial reaction I was won over by his absolute commitment to his vision of Bach, and I was grateful that he shared it with us.
After the "interval," the British term for the intermission, Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma played the d minor Suite. Of course, he played with gut strings, no endpin, and a baroque bow, but this time I wasn't distracted by the trappings of his "authentic" approach (a term he hates) and I listened to him with more objectivity than ever before, perhaps because he was but one of six performers, or perhaps because his performance was repeatedly marred by pops and squeaks, which can easily happen with gut strings. True to the thesis in his book, Bach, the Fencing Master, in which he assumes that Anna Magdalena Bach knew exactly what she was doing when she mixed up the slurs in her copy of the manuscript, he made sure that measures didn't habitually start with a down bow and that sequences weren't bowed the same. The continual variation of bowings gave the music an added layer of interest, but one might also argue that it occasionally lessened the clarity of the music, not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Though at times very eccentric, Bylsma's playing always has an enviable element of spontaneity.
American cellist Timothy Eddy followed Anner Bylsma with the E-flat Suite. Anybody who can get through this suite without his or her hands exhaustedly globbing on the floor like Inspector Clouseau's puttied nose must have a wonderfully tension-free technique, given that the key implies the repeated use of tiring extended position. His playing was impeccable and unmannered (a striking contrast with Bylsma), and cellistic but not overly Romanticized, making his interpretation a wonderful bridge between the Baroque and Modern styles. One very effective bowing that I may steal from him is that, in the Prelude, he starts each measure with two hooked down bows and then makes it up at the end of each measure with two carefully played up bows. Given how difficult it is to cleanly and quickly cross over two strings, this little trick may make this scary prelude a little more accessible to us mere mortals.
After the second intermission, British cellist Colin Carr played the C Major Suite in a style and with a sound that I thought was perfect. His playing was incredibly clean, his sound was resonantly metallic, like pealing church bells, and his interpretation was, for me, ideal. Yes, his approach was Modern, but it was sensitively straight-ahead and not at all heavy-handed. He used a very violinistic bow technique, playing in the upper half much of the time, which gave his playing a shimmering delicacy. Colin Carr is one of those players who deserves much more attention that he currently receives.
The last suite, the Sixth, was performed on a 5-string cello by French baroque cellist, Christophe Coin. Oh ... that E string … that heavenly E string. The E string produced the most divine sounds I have ever heard in my life, high-pitched but with a full and resonant cello sound. Every time he played on it, the beatific timbre went straight to my heart, flooding my eyes with gratitude for being able to experience such serene beauty. I now understand why my former teacher, Eva Heinitz, never liked this suite on a standard cello. The 4-string cello simply cannot ring as resonantly high up on the A string.
Coin demonstrated that being a Baroque performer does not imply that one has to be a musically eccentric player; his interpretation was very "normal." Yes, he used baroque techniques and equipment, but he played it such that one was able to enjoy the purity and genius of Bach's music. He let the music speak for itself.
As Coin neared the end of his Herculean effort, my excitement built to a climax as I realized that we were nearing the end of one of the greatest concerts I have ever heard. After the final chords the audience leapt to its feet, not only to cheer Coin and his fantastic performance, but to express its appreciation to all the performers and Ralph Kirshbaum for making this one-of-a-kind concert possible. As all six cellists stood before the roaring crowd for their final bows, I was filled with misty-eyed gratitude that they would bravely share their vision of Bach with us, to Bach for creating such masterpieces for the cello, to Ralph Kirshbaum for organizing the RNCM Cello Festival, and to my teacher Eva Heinitz, for whom music was religion, who taught me how to appreciate true beauty.
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