by Mike Ingalls
The Cleveland Cello Society, now in its third year, currently has 160 members and is engaged in bringing a number of artists to Cleveland. In March 1999 they brought in Janos Starker. They have held two annual "i cellisti" concerts, this year featuring the cello section of the Cleveland Orchestra. Their latest concert, featuring Eugene Friesen and Paul Halley, was a total change of pace.
Friesen (cello) and Halley (piano and organ) are both Grammy Award-winning members of the Paul Winter Consort. In addition, they compose and perform alone and with other ensembles. The reach of their repertoire includes classical, sacred, folk, jazz and ethnic musics. The show Saturday night included all these influences.
Friesen plays with great passion, wonderful freedom, and marvelous technique. There were times when I thought, "I know many cellists who could be up there playing this." There were times when my jaw dropped and my heart pounded in my chest. All in all, it was a wonderful experience.
For me, the high point came with a moving performance-piece called "For Pablo." He explained how his hero, Pablo Casals, had risen every morning and picked up the cello to play Bach, almost until the day he died. Friesen then picked up a mask of Casals, placed a black cloak over his shoulders, and became a 90-year-old man, beset with arthritis and the other aches and pains of age. When he began playing, I did not think it was really Friesen playing, and I came close to tears.
The other memorable piece was an etude he wrote to explore pizzicato. I could not believe the sounds I was hearing; I figured he must have had three hands to do all the plucking, strumming, and thumping he was doing. He says he intends to publish these etudes, and when he does, buy them!
There were a few problems. When the organ was played it slightly overpowered the cello, at least from where I was sitting. And, in a piece with recorded whale sounds, Friesens electric cello gave up the ghost, and it was called to a halt.
There is also the question of singing. Friesen occasionally sings the melody while he plays, no mean feat if you have ever tried it. Some people enjoyed it; others thought it distracted. Personally, Im undecided.
On Sunday, Friesen gave a workshop on improvisation for cellists. (Suggested playing level: 2-octave scales through four sharps and flats.) There were about twenty cellists present, and roughly the same number of listeners. The cellists were mostly students, including 4 or 5 from the Cleveland Institute of Music, down to age 10 or so. There were also a couple of us old fogies.
Friesen began by creating "safe" space, where there were no wrong notes, where we were all helping each other out. We tried some simple things, like everyone playing a note on the C string, and it really sounded as good as some modern pieces I have heard.
Then the fun began. He had one college student come up and they improvised a duet. It came out beautifully, and that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Another cellist volunteered to play with him (Me, if you must know. I hadnt driven that far to miss out on the experience). Then he began bringing up groups of three to play with each other. The results were surprising and immensely gratifying. Although some of the groups were weaker than others were, the overall sound was wonderful.
During the second half of the workshop Friesen concentrated on different specifics that can be used in improvisation. He demonstrated the pentatonic scale, playing patterns against open strings to produce different harmonies, then showed in detail the plucking techniques he uses in his pizzicato etudes.
To end the show, he improvised for four or five minutes, a thrilling piece that employed everything in his arsenal.
Friesen was personable, and open to questions and conversation before, during, and after the workshop. He enjoys playing the cello, and he enjoys helping others open up to a different style. If you have the chance to hear him in person, do so.
Friesens CDs are available everywhere, and he has a new video called "Cello Man." His web site is http://www.celloman.com/. For information an availability of the CD write to Bisobel@aa.net; or call 206-283-3392.
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