I wanted to take a break from behind-the-scenes administrative reporting to share a recent concert experience that might be of interest to those who like to “geek out” about all things cello-related.

It might have been Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in Sex and the City (not that I ever watched the show…) who noted that one of the best things about living in New York City is getting out of it once in a while.  So on a scorching July weekend it was invigorating to drive well beyond the numbered streets and convene with eleven other cellists in the town of Hunter, New York—home to some of the highest peaks in the Catskill Mountains.

The simplicity of this village and nearby Tannersville was a quaint contrast to Manhattan.  The Catskills Mountain Foundation that sponsored the concert efficiently keeps a café, bookstore, and craft shop together in one building.  Opposite Main Street, the concert hall shares space with a cinema  and an antique piano gallery, so one could conceivably buy Twizzlers before the cello concert or try an 1826 Tischner Grand Fortepiano on the way out of the latest Harry Potter film.


I suggested in an earlier post that cellists are social creatures.  Give some of us the melody, give some of us the bass line, give us enough time to kibbitz between rehearsals, and there is pretty much no need to involve any other species of musician.  Perhaps it was this spirit of collegiality that inspired two of Hector Villa-Lobos’ “Bachianas Brasileiras” for eight celli.  The fact that these pieces succeed on so many levels is remarkable.  First of all, it’s difficult to think of many other pieces that feature eight separate parts dedicated to one instrument.  I am surely biased, but the orchestration never sounds monotonous.  Bachianas Brasilerias Nos. 1 and 5 are idiomatically written for the cello, fun to play, and perfectly serve their function as fifty-fifty hybrids of Bachian, contrapuntal writing and sensual, tropical Brazilian folk songs complete with percussion and guitar effects.

The occasion in Hunter was a tribute concert for Danièle Doctorow, a New York-based cellist and arts patron who passed away last November from cancer.  Julius Klengel’s spiritual Hymnus for twelve celli was one of Danièle’s favorite pieces, so to program this we opted to go for the full monty in the Villa-Lobos as well, adding four extra players to the eight parts.  Some cellists also contributed solo encore pieces with piano to round out the program.

To play in the cello section of any major orchestra these days is to be cast in with an accomplished bunch.   This particular Dirty Dozen impressed most by virtue of their eclectic backgrounds.  Or perhaps Ocean’s Twelve was the more appropriate movie analogy: a Special Forces unit where each player brought his or her own expertise to the heist (in this case, pulling off Wilhelm Kaiser-Lindemann’s Die 12  in Bossa-Nova, originally written as a showy vehicle for the Berlin Philharmonic’s cellists).  Over the course of three days’ worth of rehearsals, lunches, subway rides, and a car ride through the mountains, I had the amazing opportunity to know and pick the brains of 11 other partners-in-crime.  A partial roll-call doesn’t do justice to all these players’ accomplishments, but it might reveal an interesting tapestry of the creative minds that can be found in the cello world.  I got to speak with:

Kevin McFarland, cellist of the JACK quartet, on conquering the four daunting string quartets by Iannis Xenakis (yes, intonation matters…)

Wilhemina Smith, founder and artistic director of the Salt Bay Chamberfest, on handling board members (some give their time, some give their money…)

Wendy Sutter, globe-trotting soloist, on touring with new concertos by composers like Tan Dun and Philip Glass, and the difference between the concert scenes in Europe and the U.S. (Europe is better…)

Eric Jacobsen, of Brooklyn Rider and The Knights fame, on being the man in the middle of a heated exchange between heads of the musicians’ union (AFM) and the New England Conservatory (NEC) on the future of professional orchestras (captured on video for those with 75 minutes to spare…)

Caroline Stinson, on her busy year since I last saw her, having just given birth to both her son Henry and to her debut solo CD on Albany Records.  Although I got to hold both of them, I was only allowed to take one of them home with me.

And Jerry Grossman, co-principal cellist of the MET Opera Orchestra, playing the  role of the Lee Marvin character (or George Clooney, depending on your generation) as our fearless first cellist.  He related to me by sharing a little about his own humble beginnings as a freelancer, before eventually landing gigs with the orchestras of Chicago, New York, and finally the MET (“it was an uphill battle as a freelancer…”). Although we tend to think of the old-school masters as those who truly possessed one-of-a-kind sounds, I was amazed how Grossman’s sound in The Swan was immediately identifiable with those Tosca solos I’d always heard on the radio.  I look forward to keeping in touch with the younger generation of cellists I’d met that week, as we each forge our own unique trail!

* You can view a YouTube clip from the concert here.