The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music education: The Ear takes the “Cello Cure” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and now can’t wait for another “treatment” next summer.

June 19, 2014
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, for the first time ever, I went to the free public concert put on every June by the National Summer Cello Institute, which takes place each summer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Cello Choir 2014 with Uri Vardi

The NSCI is under the direction of University of Wisocnsin-Madison cello professor Uri Vardi (below top) and his wife Hagit Vardi (below body), who works with the UW-Madison Institute of Integrative Medicine and emphasizes the use of the Feldenkrais Method to help performers in workshops called, fittingly, “You Body is Your Strad.”

Uri Vardi with cello COLOR

hagitvardistretching artm

Here is a link to a previous post about the cello institute, with still other links to even earlier stories:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/06/11/classical-music-a-free-cello-choir-concert-will-take-place-this-saturday-night-at-the-university-of-wisconsin-madison-it-features-new-music-and-works-by-villa-lobos-poulenc-j-s-bach-cesar-frank/

The event proved so thoroughly enjoyable and so deeply pleasurable, and put me in such a great mood and frame of mind, that a close friend referred to the experience as the “Cello Cure.”

I won’t argue because it sure did feel curative.

But then I find that experiencing great beauty often feels that way.

One came away from the concert -– which included a cello choir of 16 undergraduate, graduate and professional cellists, selected by audition, from around the nation and perhaps even the world –- completely understanding why the cello, with its human voice-like singing tone, is the favorite instrument of so many listeners. (For The Ear, the cello ranks right up there, just below the piano and alongside the violin and the oboe.)

Cello and bow

One thing The Ear liked was the lack of purism. Enjoyment was the goal of the evening, and so the program featured some simply gorgeous isolated single movements from sonatas and concertos, and NOT the entire pieces. The Great Hits format worked exceptionally well. And so was featuring soloists, and not just ensembles, for the first time.

And on top of all the cellos, The Ear also had two special and bonus experiences: He heard Anna Whiteway, a fabulously talented undergraduate soprano at the UW-Madison, and he heard what sounds like an eminently listenable contemporary composer, Kyle Price, who will be attending the UW-Madison for a graduate degree.

So here are the highlights with photos and not a lot of commentary except to say I found excellence from everyone and disappointment from no one.

The concert opened up with UW-Madison conductor James Smith (below right) leading the famous “Bachianas Brasileiras” No. 5, with its soaring and lyrical soprano aria or wordless vocalise, by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. In it and the other similar suites, the composer attempted to adapt and update the musical style of Johann Sebastian Bach to his native country’s indigenous folk melodies and dance rhythms.

Cello Choir 2014 Jim Smith

Here are members of the cello choir, which wouldn’t fit well in a single photo.

Cello Choir 20144 left

Cello Choir 2014 right

And here is Anna Whiteway, who got enthusiastic applause from the cellists and the woefully small audience of several dozen listeners. No wonder. She is The Real Deal. She possesses beautiful tone, big volume, pleasant and modest vibrato, excellent diction and a thoroughly confident stage presence:

Cello Choir 2014 Anna Whiteway

Here is Brian Klickman and pianist Claire Mallory in the poignantly moving Cavatina movement from the Cello Sonata by Francis Poulenc.

Cello Choir 2014 Brian Klickman, Claire Mallory piano

Here is that wonderfully tuneful last movement from Cesar Franck‘s Violin Sonata transcribed for cello and played by Cordula Aeschbacher with pianist Claire Mallory:

Cello Choir 2014 Cordula Aeschbacher

Then Aleks Tengesdal played the impressively turbulent first movement of the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, with piano accompaniment.

Cello Choir 2014 Aleks Tengesdal, Claire Mallory piano

Julian Mueller closed out the first half with the gorgeous Andante Cantabile by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who, it seems, was never at a loss for a beautiful, bittersweet melody. (You can hear it played by superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a YouTube video at the bottom):

Cello Choir 2014 Julian Mueller

The second half opened with seven cellists playing the Recitative and Meditation movements from the young contemporary American composer Kyle Price’s “Requiem in Memory of Connie Barrett.” The Ear found it a very promising and appetizing foretaste of what sounds like a listener-friendly composing style, something too often missing from new music:

Cello Choir 2014 Kyle Price Requiem cellos

Then came back-to-back performances by father and son cellists.

Son Andrew Laven played three movements –- the Bourees 1 and 2 and the Gigue -– from the Suite No. 4 for Solo Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach:

Cello Choir 2014 Andrew Laven

Father Steven Laven, with pianist Christina Lalog, played “The Tears of Jacqueline” by Jacques Offfenbach, a work he said he first heard when it was dedicated to the late great British cellist Jacqueline du Pre. You understand the dedication because the piece is appropriately lyrical in its lament:

Cello Choir 2014 Steven Laven, Christina Lalog piano

And then the concert closed as it opened, with the music of Villa-Lobos. But this was a work The Ear didn’t know, the “Bachianas Brasileiras” No. 1, which has a lovely and soulful slow movement and catchy fugal finale:

Cello Choir 2014 Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1

As an encore, the cello choir demonstrated an improvisational exercise that it used during the two-week workshop. It involves a conductor using unusual and unpredictable hands movements that are unrelated to a particular score or piece of music, and to which the cellists must each respond as they desire or hear is necessary. To The Ear, it sounded a bit like the famous simultaneous, full-orchestra crescendo in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” song from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album.

Cello Choir 2014 Improvisation exercise

Uri Vardi graciously thanked the small but very appreciative audience that rose to its feet and added: “See you next year.”

Indeed, he will.

He will almost certainly see The Ear, although I hope the NSCI can find a way to avoid a conflict with a concert on the same night by the popular Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. Audiences shouldn’t have to choose between two such deserving groups.

And Vardi should also see a full house in Mills Hall.

The Cello Choir concert is that good and that lovely, that beautiful and, yes, that curative.


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