Miranda Wilson – bringing it back home from Idaho

Miranda Wilson (‘cello)
Jovanni-Rey de Pedro (piano)

Solo and chamber works
by Pärt, Ginastera, Bloch, Norton and Beethoven

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Friday, July 17th, 2015

Trying to think of an appropriate heading for the review of this concert presented me with something of a challenge (as I find words do in general). After wrestling inconsequentially  with a number of thoughts, I finally hit upon the idea of celebrating what seemed to me a particularly distinctive Trans-Pacific connection through music, one which had happily resulted in this concert being presented here in Wellington for our very great pleasure.

The “Idaho” link in this case involved both Wellington-born ‘cellist Miranda Wilson, and her musical collaborator for this concert, Filipino-American pianist Jovanni-Rey de Pedro. Both are Assistant Professors of their respective instruments at the University of Idaho, situated mid-state in a city rather wonderfully called Moscow (well, why should the Russians get ALL of the fun?)

I last heard Miranda Wilson perform with the Tasman String Quartet here in Wellington goodness knows how long ago – previously I had heard her as a soloist, playing part of one of the Bach ‘Cello Suites. I remember on that occasion being struck by her “classic cellist” appearance (even though there’s probably no such thing!), a Suggia-like presence (there’s a famous portrait of the latter) and an intense concentration which came across in her playing via a direct and beautifully-focused sound.

Here she was heard both as a soloist and collaborator, bringing those same qualities of presence, focus and intensity to her playing throughout. She was certainly matched in most of these respects when performing with her colleague, pianist Jovanni-Rey de Pedro, even if I found myself somewhat distracted at the concert’s very beginning by the pianists’s constant activating of a computer-screen, presumably taking the place of a printed score, throughout the opening of Arvo Pärt’s haunting Spiegel im Spiegel (“Mirror in the mirror”).

This is a work whose raison d’être involves exchange and enrichment through collaboration –the combination of instruments beautifully activated the silent spaces, the sound sound waves set a-rippling with piano arpeggios, the vistas widened by the ‘cello’s two-note phrases and deepened with occasional piano bass notes. Once Jovanni-Rey de Pedro had gotten through the opening measures, he kept his left hand largely away from the screen and down at the keyboard, to my great relief – yes, I know, it says very little for my powers of concentration on the music, but nevertheless I couldn’t help being diverted by it in situ!

However, once the composer’s “mirror images” had cast their spell, and the music run its course, Miranda Wilson graciously welcomed us to the concert and introduced her pianist colleague to us. The duo then undertook Ernest Bloch’s “Prayer”, one of three movements from his 1924 work From Jewish Life.

As one might expect from the composer of that wonderfully passionate work Schelomo (also for solo ‘cello, together with orchestra), the music has what Bloch described as the “Hebrew spirit…..the complex, ardent, agitated soul” found in the pages of the Bible, with all its “sorrow….grandeur (and) sensuality”.  All of that was here in spades from both players, ‘cello and piano by turns flamboyantly rhapsodizing, and gently musing, each taking the lead, then acting in accord, right up to the work’s final, generously-held note.

Jovanni-Rey de Pedro then played for us Alberto Ginastera’s flamboyant and exciting Op.22 Piano Sonata. This music was a “discovery” for me, as I had known only Ginastera’s Ballet Suites “Estancia” And “Panambi”, the former a kind of Argentinan version of Copland’s “Rodeo”, the latter owing something of its energies and exoticism to Manuel de Falla. But the Piano Sonata, though bringing to mind in places Ravel’s “Scarbo” from Gaspard de la Nuit, impressed most of all on my mind the idea that its composer knew well the rhythms and movements of his native land, whether driving, forceful and exciting, or gentle and insinuating.

The first movement’s two contrasting ideas were here delivered so characterfully – firstly the high-impact, funkily driven, sharp-contrast sequences of the opening, followed by more lyrically-centred passages, still buoyed along by the  toe-tapping rhythms, but here working a kind of “other-side -of-the-coin” magic with the material. Jovanni-Rey put it all across with tremendous volatility of expression – a mode that in the second movement “went underground”, its “misterioso” marking making for somewhat “Latin Gothic” effects at the beginning, everything bursting out only momentarily from a kind of “organ toccata” texture. The pianist’s exemplary control of dynamics throughout made for an eerily agitated effect, the playing’s obvious brilliance placed at the service of the music’s enigmatic character.

Again, what a contrast with the slow movement! – here, laden, arpeggiated figures loomed out of the mists and disappeared again as mysteriously as they formed. In Jovanni-Rey’s hands it all resembled a bluesy dream-sequence to begin with, the swirling notes then coalescing into bigger, Rachmaninovian statements before retreating into the half-lit ambiences once again, intent upon consolidating gained territories. As for the finale, it seemed like there was a force of nature at work, an overwhelming, fiery pianistic display from this young man, with toccata-like figurations showering sparks in all directions – so very exhilarating!

The programme’s second half opened up an entirely different world of expression, in the form of Bloch’s Third Suite for solo ‘cello. One of three written towards the end of the composer’s life, the music obviously owes a structural debt to Bach, while using twentieth-century harmonies and figurations. Miranda Wilson’s playing allowed plenty of both lyrical expression and rhythmic poise throughout each of the five movements, demonstrating, for example, in the opening Allegro deciso, a lovely “encircling” quality, rhythm taking its turn with line amid touches of volatility and occasional ascents to beautifully-breathed stratospheric places.

But throughout the work, the performance seemed to me to “light from within” the music’s different characters, from the first Andante’s quizzical processional, through the leaping jocularities of the Allegro and the visionary yearnings of the second Andante, to the ritualized “song-and-dance” of the concluding Allegro giocoso movement. The player certainly deserved the sustained applause which followed the Suite’s final movement, brought off here with élan and confidence.

Next, Christopher Norton’s Eastern Preludes and Pacific Preludes, somewhat tongue-in-cheek arrangements of various melodies from different countries, provided a good deal of surface entertainment, especially in Jovann-Rey’s polished renditions. For those familiar with each of the “originals” and their individual geographical contexts there could well have been as many amusing incongruities of style identifiable as there were to Australasian ears in the “Waltzing Matilda” and “Pokarekare Ana” versions – the spirit of Fats Waller seemed to bubble up from within the cracks between the keys during parts of the former, while one was reminded of the wicked sense of fun brought to bear in similar arrangements to that of “Pokarekare” by the late, lamented Larry Pruden.

Appropriately, both musicians featured in the concert’s final item, Beethoven’s Variations on Mozart’s “Bei Männern, welch Liebe fühlen” from The Magic Flute. Beginning with that warmest and richest of musical sounds, the E-flat chord, an exposition-like opening gave way to a more decorated variant with running accompaniments, the pace hotting up in the succeeding variation to edge-of-seat excitement, before the composer dropped a few anchors to get the music’s bearings thus far on the journey. Into the minor mode we were then taken by a wistful piano and a dark-browed ‘cello, the instruments simply being themselves, both played with all the character the musicians could muster.

The piece’s youthful composer obviously being out to show us what he could do, a skipping, syncopated figuration was occasionally made to pick up its skirts and run, to everybody’s bemusement. That established, the musicians relished the melody’s long-breathed cavatina-like treatment, ‘cello joining the piano, and both players treating the lines with that amalgam of freedom and responsibility which indicates true interpretative judgement, as much when to hold as when to let go. The latter moment came with the final variation, a playfully-launched waltz turning into a minor-key display of high spirits, each musician relishing the unbuttoned expression required by the composer – a brief luftpause made the brilliant final flourish go off like a glowing firework.

We loved the music and the duo’s playing of it – very great credit to them both, individually and as a partnership.



















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