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The sun broke out after long days of rain (and with more rain to come afterwards) to grace this afternoon concert at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Davidson, given by the four cellists of the Cello Fourum. This group was founded by Marc Moskovitz, and includes Peng Li, David Meyer, and Nathaniel Yaffe.
Moskovitz has had a long, varied, and notable career as a cellist and author. He is author of Alexander Zemlinsky: A Lyric Symphony and wrote, with Duke scholar R. Larry Todd, Beethoven's Cello. I'm about two-thirds the way through the cello book, and it is quite detailed and well-written – a must-read for performers of Beethoven's cello sonatas.
All three of the other cellists are members of the cello section of the North Carolina Symphony. Li joined the symphony as assistant principal cellist in 2008. Meyer has much experience internationally in solo, symphonic, and chamber music. Yaffe has a B.M. in both Cello Performance and Audio Recording from Cleveland Institute of Music; I can vouch for his engineering prowess, as he did a very good job recording Bonnie Thron performing my Cello Concerto with two pianists. He joined the NCS in 2013.
The afternoon started, as is the custom for St. Alban's concerts, with forty minutes of music by young musicians. Today's young artists were pianist Florence Lui, and flutists Will Odonoghue and Catherine Edmondson.
The cello quartet began with the Overture to the Barber of Seville, by Gioachino Rossini, arranged by Moore (first name unknown). This old chestnut works pretty well with the ensemble; as will always be the case with such arrangements for orchestral music that the audience knows, the ears expect things that only brass, winds, and drums can do. A reasonable listener will appreciate the new take on the music without being too upset with what had to be left on the editing floor.
Next was "Sicut cervus" by Giovanni Palestrina. This took advantage of the fact that cellos, alone among string instruments, can match the full range of human voices, bass to soprano. That means that a cello quartet can take SATB vocal music right off the shelf and give it a go, frequently to good effect, as long as the words don't matter. Palestrina can be a touch on the academic (i.e. boring) side, especially in large doses, but this work was quite moving and effective, and not so long as to push its limits.
As a bit of a curve ball, the quartet followed with music not included in the program; Antonio Vivaldi's Concerto Grosso, Op. 3, No. 11. This was very similar to Bach in many respects, and is quite a sophisticated work. The ensemble used little if any vibrato in much of the older music, almost getting to a viol effect, especially with Baroque bowing. Suffice to say that there is some debate about the degree of vibrato in the original performance practice; an entire evening of flat tone would be tiresome, but for a few pieces on a varied program it works very well.
Moskovitz arranged Englebert Humperdinck's "Evening Prayer" from Hansel and Gretel for the four cellos. You really can't lose with this tune; it carries the opera, and by extension, Humperdinck's whole career.
Then we had "Nocturne" by Ludwig Maurer, a pleasant Romantic effort from 1859 by this composer born in Germany who lived his adult life in Russia.
For the final old chestnut of the afternoon, we had Meyer's arrangement of the famous Adagio from String Quartet, Op. 11 by Samuel Barber. This movement has been on heavy rotation since the 1930's; Toscanini broadcasted it when FDR died. All four cellists are quite comfortable in the highest register, which as you might imagine is a requirement for this piece at the big climax near the end.
For a bit of lighter fare, next came "Squaretet" by Matt Walker (b. 1968). This starts off with a quote from Rossini's William Tell Overture, and moves on to a blues and jazz influenced series of riffs.
The final two pieces were from Astor Piazzolla; the slow "Milonga," arranged by Becktell, and the up-tempo "La Muerte del Angel," arranged by Dejardin. The arrangements included much pizzicato and the occasional percussive use of the cello bodies, as well as bowing, from time to time, on the wrong side of the bridge. Astor knew how to loosen up and have fun.
After a standing ovation, we had an encore of "Pavane" by Gabriel Fauré written in 1887. This moving and gorgeous work does very well on four cellos. It is probably better this way than with orchestra and chorus, given that the words they sing are from an execrable poem best mumbled and forgotten.
All in all, a well-received and enjoyable concert by a polished ensemble of real pros.