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The CSO's Principal Cellist at UNC

October 22, 2004 - Chapel Hill, NC:


They're a dime a dozen, or even less, 'cause most of 'em are free. We're talking about recitals this time, and a glance at CVNC 's calendar reveals that there are lots of them in the Triangle and beyond. Many are given by faculty artists - no slouches, these folks - but some involve visitors. On October 22, in Hill Hall - not the most wonderful place for chamber music - a stellar artist with sterling credentials gave a program that commanded attention for several reasons: it was an all-20th century program (well, the first half of the century, anyway...), and it included a great but virtually unknown work by an American among the usual off-shore suspects. As it happened, the turnout was exceedingly poor, but the 30 or so souls who opted for music in lieu of the fair or other cultural offerings were richly rewarded.

The artists included Alan Black, Principal Cello of the CSO - that's the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, lest there be any confusion with Chicago. He's also the Artistic Director of what appears to be the Queen City's largest chamber music organization, the series known as Chamber Music at St. Peter's. The mere fact that he does chamber music along with his regular orchestral duties speaks volumes. And as it happens, he and his distinguished colleagues - pianist Phillip Bush, late of New York but now living in South Carolina, and harpist Betsey Sesler, who teaches at Queens University and runs Charlotte's Suzuki Harps program (bet you've never heard of this, either - they teach kids how to play harps, much like the better-known Suzuki violin classes) - put on what was unquestionably one of the very best concerts heard hereabouts in a long, long time.

The recital began with Vaughan Williams' ubiquitous "Studies in English Folk Song," recently played in Raleigh by Jonathan Kramer. From the opening bar, the Chapel Hill reading was inspired and inspiring, thanks in large measure to Black's thoroughly idiomatic treatment of the themes. Bush was a marvelous partner, and our only regret centered on the brevity of the six little selections.

Lou Harrison is one of our most lamentably unsung American heroes, often viewed as a kook akin to that Ives fellow. His Suite (1949) for cello and harp begins and ends with a chorale of wondrous beauty, played with keen intensity and engagement by Black and Sesler. After the introduction came a Pastorale, in which the harp sustains the mood of the title while the cello romps here and there. The central Interlude is an intense and driving bit with percussive-like contributions from the harp - it is certainly not what one might have expected, but it forms the climactic core of the Suite. A solo Aria with exceptional emotional content plumbed the soul before the quiet reprise of the opening section. Overall it was a surprisingly spiritual piece, one that we'd welcome the chance to hear again, particularly with these artists.

Debussy's Sonata for Cello and Piano is one of the 20th century's great pieces, but it has always seemed a tough nut to crack, despite fairly frequent live performances and many, many wonderful recordings. Like the Borromeo Quartet's traversal of Bartók's six quartets at Duke in June 2003, this Hill Hall performance was a revelation - Black and Bush delivered the Debussy Sonata with awesome technical skill, and the interpretation reflected degrees of understanding that made the work seem new and fresh and in the process wiped away memories of many other renditions.

The grand finale was Rachmaninov's Sonata, Op. 19. It barely merits qualification as a 20th-century piece, since it is dated 1901, and in fact it is of the Romantic era, through and through. The piano part is more demanding than that for the cello. (One must consider the source of the music, in this case, for Old Stoneface was one of the greatest pianists in history.) Again, Black and Bush delivered the goods, but not with the sort of over-the-top interpretation we've heard from others. Instead, they allowed the music to speak for itself, and it did so with great power and sweep that infused the hall as the piece unfolded. The small crowd made a lot of noise at the end; here's hoping that the volume of the applause made up for any possible disappointment on the artists' parts over the paltry turnout.

This program was also given at UNCG, in Charlotte, and elsewhere during what must have been an exhausting tour. One would not have known that from the dynamic performances. For sure, these musicians should be on the short-list of must-hear players for Tar Heel chamber music buffs.

Black plays chamber music in Charlotte on November 2, at St. Peter's Episcopal Church. See our Western calendar for details.