The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music notes: There are more great cellists than Yo-Yo Ma, so today in Madison it’s Ralph Kirshbaum Day

November 19, 2009
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By Jacob Stockinger

There are quite a few great cellists playing in the world today, and Madison has done an outstanding job in presenting many of them.

That’s more of a feat than it might sound.

But let’s start with the big event that sparks these musings: the Madison orchestral debut this weekend of cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, an American by birth and education who now is based in the Great Britain.

Kirshbaum will perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain this weekend.

But TODAY, THURSDAY, NOV. 19, he will also give an interview on Wisconsin Public Radio’s The Midday, with knowledgeable hosts Norman Gilliland and Stephanie Elkins, at NOON – 88.7 FM in the Madison area.

Then — also TODAY AT 1 P.M. IN MORPHY HALL — and Kirshbaum will also give a free public master class on the UW campus in the Mosse Humanities Building.

(With the MSO, Kirshbaum will perform Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo” and Dvorak’s “Silent Woods.” Also on the program, to be conducted by John DeMain, are Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome.”

(Performances are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $75. Call 258-4141.)

If you’ve never heard of Kirshbaum — even though only 34 years ago he performed a recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater during the 1975-76 season —  that can easily be forgiven.

After all, these days Yo-Yo Ma is the Microsoft of cellists, seemingly playing everywhere and everything, and then recording it or going on TV to broadcast it. Small wonder he probably has a cello market share in the high-90s.

Still, there are some outstanding cellists out there, many of whom Madison presenters thankfully get to come through town. These cellists include Steven Isserlis, Carter Brey, Alisa Weilerstein (below left, who recently played at the White House’s classical music night), Matt Haimovitz, Amanda Forsythe and Alban Gerhardt. Thank you!

I’d also like to see: Mischa Maisky, who often partners with famed pianist Martha Argerich, though I find his Bach playing a bit melodramatic and Romantic; and especially Jian Wang (below right), the outstanding Chinese cellist who as a boy was featured in violinist Isaac Stern’s Oscar-winning documentary film “From Mao to Mozart” but whose Deutsche Grammophon recordings of Bach suites and other music from the Baroque and Classical eras, right through Brahms and Dvorak, are terrific.

These are the inheritors to such historic giants and master cellists such as Janos Starker, Pablo Casals, Gregor Piatigorsky, Emanuel Feuermann, Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonard Rose and Pierre Fournier among others.

A comparatively neglected contemporary master is Ralph Kirshbaum. I am particularly fond of his recording of the Bach solo suites, which blends the robustness of modern playing with the sprightly lightness of period instruments and early music interpretations.

The cello is such an appealing instrument, so vocal and resonant, that we really should hear more of the today’s Great Ones live – and not just Yesterday’s Great Ones on recordings.

Nor, since monopolies or near-monopolies are unhealthy for the Republic of Taste, should one confine one’s cellists to Yo-Yo Ma. (Not that there is anything wrong with Ma’s playing, but you’d be surprised how exciting other cellists can be.)

Anyway, it is well worth your while to get to know the neglected contemporary cello masters better.

So here is a link to unusual biography of Kirshbaum, who has performed world-wide, won major prizes and made some outstanding recording:

And here’s a link to an interview with Kirshbaum on the Cello Society’s webpage:

But don’t forget that today and this weekend you can also hear him in person, talking as well as playing.

Finally, the Governor, County Executive and Mayor probably won’t proclaim it, so I will: Happy Ralph Kirshbaum Day!

Posted in Classical music

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