Cheers for Joshua Roman’s TownMusic All-Cello Celebration
Joshua Roman’s TownMusic series wrapped up Tuesday night at Town Hall, with music entirely for four to eight cellos. Some might think a grouping like this could be boring, but it’s not the first time at Town Hall we’ve had only cellos, and it’s a wonderfully rich, reverberant sound. Roman turns out not only to be a fine emcee as he introduces music or musicians, his choices are eclectic and enlivening, and his programming well arranged.
Thus the first half of the program had to do with spiritual life and death, beginning and ending with arrangements by Roman of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” In between came Piazzolla’s La Muerte del Angel and his La Resurrección del Angel, either side of Richard Strauss’ “Beim Schlafengen (Going to Sleep)” from Four Last Songs, and followed by La deploration (lament, sorrow) sur la mort de Johannes Ockeghem by Josquin, and Arvo Pärt’s Fratres.
They made for a consistently engaging group of works, with successful arrangements of the Strauss by Walter Gray and the Josquin by Charles Jacot. Four cellists performed most of this: Roman, Julie Albers from Atlanta, Richard Belcher from New York, and Efe Baltacigil, just ending his first year as principal cello of the Seattle Symphony.
“Street Spirit” translated well into a restful and relaxed introduction to this concert theme, while the unmistakable Argentinian idiom of Piazzolla flavored his two works. A canon and a romantically soulful melody imbued the first, and a declamatory role followed a hypnotic start in the second, with a more agitated vigor toward the end. In both of these Baltacigil took the lead, while Belcher and Albers had the melody in the Strauss.
Roman chose throughout most of the concert to anchor the lowest accompanying musical line, handing the limelight to his talented colleagues, each of whom played with expressive warmth and an easy technique which seemed to release the sound rather than pull it out of the instrument.
The reduction of vibrato in the lower voices gave a pure sound to the Josquin polyphony, where Belcher’s tone floated lightly above, much of this very soft and fading out at the end.
For the Pärt, the four cellists were joined by four more, Jacot, Gray, Roberta Hansen Downey, and Meeka Quan DiLorenzo (the last three Seattle Symphony cellists and Jacot a member of the Pacific Northwest Ballet orchestra and frequent Symphony sub), plus a drummer in a minor role, Antonio DiLorenzo.
Fratres, a gorgeous, moving work with two soft continuing drones at the side (Roman and Jacot), alternated a slow melody like a peaceful hymn tune often using harmonics with plucks, taps, and bounced bows in brief.
All of these works were so varied in approach, though never very loud, that they consistently held the attention. Not so “Stairway to Heaven,” which in comparison sounded dull, repetitive, and unimaginative.
A commissioned world premiere by Mason Bates for solo cello followed intermission. Bates, who writes successfully for large orchestra incorporating electronics into his music, commented on the challenge of writing for one acoustic instrument, saying that he had eventually realized that there is a wide range of musical variety in the tone of that one instrument.
However, his realization did not really come to fruition in his Town Hall Analog. His 15-minute work largely comprised arpeggios from bottom to top of the instrument, sometimes plucked, sometimes with a harmonic and a longer note with more character at the top. The whole was quite spare. There was little by way of phrasing, development, or an arched shape to the piece, and Bates failed to take any advantage of the depth and sonorities of the cello, making it feel more an intellectual exercise. Roman performed this without a score, giving it a well-considered performance.
Totally different and much more appealing was Anne Wilson’s moving Lament (in Memory of Matthew Shepard), for solo cello with cello quartet. Here the solo was taken by Albers. It’s programmatic, but not overtly so, finely harmonized and with all the emotional content lacking in Bates’ piece.
Lastly, the eight cellos played the first of Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras, the composer’s take on Bach, Brazilian-style. The cellos mostly played in pairs, their synchronicity extraordinary and the whole highly satisfying. Ensemble work was excellent, throughout the concert, matched not only in being together but with matched tone in each piece, and all of them first-class musicians. It was particularly good to hear Baltacigil in a prominent role.
This was a long concert, more than two and a half hours, but the jam-packed Town Hall audience would likely have been happy to stay for more.