Time was when Smedes Parlor concerts were given to a half-empty hall, but no more. For Tuesday’s season opener the hall was packed, with the younger audience members asked to sit on the floor or stand.
The occasion was a concert of pure fun: Four cellists from the area, both performers and teachers, presented a multi-cello program consisting of some original works and some arrangements. The principal players were Timothy Holley, who performs with the Mallarmé Chamber Players and teaches at NCCU; Virginia Hudson who performs routinely with most orchestras in the area and teaches at Meredith College; David Oh, principal cellist with the Raleigh Civic Orchestra and teacher at Saint Mary’s; and Bonnie Thron, principal cellist with the NCS and private teacher.
For some works they needed extra hands. The program opened with the five-voice Prelude and Fugue in b-flat minor, No XXII from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, arranged by composer and double bass player Adrian Mann for five cellos. Oh’s student Helen Johnson, an 11th grader at Saint Mary’s came on board for the fifth contrapuntal line. The performance got to a rocky start, however, with Oh, who had the highest voice, running into intonation problems. For some reason, perhaps because of the nature of the arrangement or range of the piece, the sound of the ensemble as a whole was muddy, obscuring the clarity of Bach’s counterpoint.
The remainder of the program fared considerably better, in large part because the writing for the ensemble fitted the style of Classical and Romantic chamber music. Individual voices often had solos supported by the rest of the group, and the harmonic rhythm was generally slower than in Bach’s dense counterpoint.
Since the players did not want to resort to transcriptions and arrangements, the program contained some little known works – even to cellists. In remarks from the “stage,” Thron explained that the UNC-Greensboro library has a particularly vast treasury of cello music as the result of gifts and bequests. Among the composers new to us was Theodore Holland (1878-1947), a gifted composer and highly respected professor at the Royal Academy of Music, a job that left him little time to compose. He wrote the Cortége for four cellos in 1939, its somber tone reflecting the grim mood upon the eve of World War II. The style and mood of the piece worked well for this ensemble, who played it beautifully.
Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986) was born in Poland but spent most of his creative life in France. He was a close friend of all the big names in music between the wars, and his music reflects the influences primarily of Stravinsky, Poulenc and Milhaud. He composed the Deux mouvements for four cellos in 1935, the first movement being slow and romantic, the second, a toccata-like prelude and fugue, a veritable cello firestorm.
After intermission, Hudson, Oh and Thron were joined by pianist Terry Thompson, piano and music theory instructor at Saint Mary’s and Director of the Smedes Parlor Concert Series, to perform the Requiem, Op.66, by David Popper (1843-1913), revered, but often hated by aspiring cellists who play his etudes ad nauseam. Composed in 1892, originally for three cellos and orchestra, Requiem is a lush, late-Romantic tear-jerker, written for and dedicated to the memory of one of the cellist-composer’s first publishers and good friend, Daniel Rahter.
Argentinean tangos are usually performed with any instrument or instrument combination available, and four cellos will do just fine. Werner Thomas-Mifune, cellist with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra transcribed two tangos by Mariano Mores, a famous Argentinean tango composer. They certainly livened up the somber atmosphere of and Holland and Popper – although the history of the tango in the barrios of Argentina is hardly joyous.
The official program ended with the transcription for four cellos by Laszlo Vargas of the 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs by Béla Bartók. Familiar in many versions, the one for four cellos has a hard time in places keeping up with Bartók’s madcap pace.
The encore was a four cello arrangement of Randall Thompson’s choral work Alleluia, a serene end to an eclectic and broadening evening.