Music written or arranged for cello ensemble, by Corelli, Villa-Lobos, de Falla, Klengel, Popper and Bach (arrangements by Claude Kenneson)
Cello Ensemble Concert in association with New Zealand School of Music
Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington
Sunday, 27 November 2011
What a treat! Eight cellists from the New Zealand School of Music, NZ Trio, New Zealand String Quartet, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Vector Wellington Orchestra and Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (their new principal, Eliah Sakakushev) formed the backbone of ‘Cellophonia’. They performed with 14 others joining later in the concert, from various other ensembles and none.
It was a mystery as to why this concert was free. Surely most people in the audience could afford at least a koha, which could have gone towards teaching music to young people, including those in underprivileged situations. An increasing amount of music teaching is going on in such circumstances; some money from this source would have been a great fillip to them.
The usual request to ensure that cellphones were off seemed to be particularly relevant this time. But this playing had no extraneous sounds, and was utterly transparent in character.
First up was Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op.6, no.8 the ‘Christmas Concerto’, with 8 cellists (Ashley Brown, Rolf Gjelsten, Andrew Joyce, Inbal Megiddo, Annemarie Meijers, Sally Pollard, Rowan Prior and Eliah Sakasushev). The music did sound a little strange, with the mainly lower-pitched sonorities – and it can’t be said that intonation was perfect. The lack of variety of timbre made this familiar music less than appealing to me; it was gravelly (and grovelly), despite some fine playing, and appropriate tempi and dynamics.
The later sections had more movement and were lighter in quality, with Andrew Joyce (who led) playing at a higher register. The playing of Joyce and Megiddo was particularly effective. The final Pastorale was characterised by sonorous contemplation that was most satisfying.
It was followed by Mahler’s dreamy Adagietto from his Symphony no.5. This time the leader was Ashley Brown, and an additional cellist (Jane Young) took part. The piece worked very well; the harp of the original was rendered on plucked strings, and the whole maintained its nostalgic, elegiac quality. Being Romantic music rather than baroque, it worked much better for this combination. Ashley Brown’s solo part was very beautifully played, if a little metallic in the upper register. Mahler’s seductive melody and harmony could not fail to play upon the heart-strings.
The arrangements of this and the Corelli were by Claude Kenneson, about whom I could learn nothing from Grove, and the printed programme was silent about him. However, Google led me to some information about this Canadian (American-born) cellist, born in 1935, and his long period of teaching at the Banff Centre for the Arts, where the New Zealand String Quartet has been resident.
Now for a work actually written for 8 cellos: Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras no.1. The popular series of 9 pieces is most well-known for no.5, the one with voice. As Grove says “…he wrote polyphonies for groups of cellos and obtained, from an extended range, resources of an almost orchestral richness.” This time the group was led by Rolf Gjelsten. (The complex rearrangement of the players between items, particularly in the second half, reminded me of a skilled marching team in action.) He played the gorgeous melody in the Preludio with warmth and mellifluous tone.
The rich sound from all the performers blocked out the howling of the wind outside. Villa-Lobos’s music transported me to another world, through the incessant rhythm of the Introduction, and the thrilling timbres achieved by the players. For the Fugue, Gjelsten swopped with Andrew Joyce; mostly there were duos of cellos to each part. It was a lightly rhythmic fugue à la Bach, with a modern twist and complex writing. The fact that the piece was written for this instrumentation certainly showed.
On now to Spain: the Suite Populaire Espagnole by Manuel de Falla, again arranged by Claude Kenneson. Originally a work for voice and piano (Keith Lewis has recorded it with Michael Houstoun), it translated well to the medium of 8 cellos. In the first movement, ‘El Paño moruno’, Andrew Joyce played very high on the finger-board; the melody sounded most sonorously, despite the carpeted floor. His superb playing demonstrated the great versatility of the cello.
A quiet ‘Asturiana’ followed, with Rolf Gjelsten taking the solo. A quiet, sultry atmosphere was created. The next, ‘Jota’, incorporated delightful dance rhythms, using spiccato technique, and a solo from Ashley Brown. However, I missed castanets. The ‘Nana’ movement had all the players using pizzicato except the solo from Eliah Sakakushev, with Inbal Meggidu bowing a bass drone. She performed the soulful and beautiful solo in ‘Canción’, with an accompaniment that could have done with some different timbres.
The final ‘Polo’ was stirring stuff, again with Inbal Megiddo as soloist.
Now to a work for twelve cellos – but played here by 23. Hymnus was composed by Julius Klengel, a German cellist and composer for that instrument, who died in 1933.
The opening of his piece was conducted by Andrew Joyce, but after that, everyone was on their own. Not all the cellists were playing for much of the piece. The melody was taken first by Ashley Brown, then Andrew Joyce joined in at a higher register, and others followed in this soporific but beautifully romantic piece.
David Popper was an Austrian cellist and composer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with many compositions to his name, including much for his own instrument. Again, there was a big, lush sound in his Requiem Adagio for 3 cellos and piano (add 20 to that). There was a wonderfully wide dynamic range, and great cohesion and rhythm in this slow and soulful piece. With this performance, it was hard to see how it could all be played on just 3 cellos. While Jian Liu could not readily be seen by most of the audience, his sensitive and musical support and clarity in the effervescent piano part were readily heard.
The fact that the Corelli did not really come off led one to expect the same of the Bach; this could not be further from the truth. After yet another complicated change of positions, all 23 played again, without conductor in a very effective performance of Brandenburg Concerto no.3 in G major, BWV 1048.
After the delightful Allegro came the Adagio with Inbal Megiddo as soloist. She played with great style and tonal variety, and with Gjelsten and Brown in the last movement, ending with her playing solo again.
The concert attracted a full house – but a good deal of the downstairs area usually used for audience seating was taken up by cellists, leaving only two rows of chairs, instead of the usual four or five.
The programme could be called experimental, but on the whole the items worked superbly well. Full marks to the musicians, and also to Claude Kenneson, who arranged most of the pieces. All the cellists made a fine sound, and the effect of their combined forces was exotic, lush, and thoroughly enjoyable.