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Most of us have seen – or been in – photographs that show huge groups of people who can be directly linked back to a single person or couple. This applies not only to biological bloodlines but also to musical descendants and influence.
During a magical three-day festival that began on March 4 at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, cellists from all over the world had the opportunity to learn, hear, and celebrate the life and work of Bernard Greenhouse, as we celebrated his 90th year.
Greenhouse is probably best known as a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio – and a 32-year run as its cellist. His legacy goes way beyond a highly successful concert and recording career. He has held faculty positions at several major music conservatories, and it is through his teaching and mentorship that the cello world now enjoys several generations of superb players, teachers, and scholars. The respect and love for this man was evident throughout the weekend, demonstrated especially by the fact that dozens of performers came to Greensboro – many at their own expense – to be part of this event.
A major component of the festival was the fact that Greenhouse has given his cello music and papers – he is the seventh major contributor – to the UNCG Cello Music Collection, housed in the Jackson Library Special Collections. (For details, see http://library.uncg.edu/depts/speccoll/cello/.) This collection is the largest of its kind in the world and will no doubt become a magnet for further additions.
The festival was planned, organized, and administered by Brooks Whitehouse, professor of cello at UNCG. This was a monumental feat, even more so considering that he also opened the festivities, playing the Fifth Cello Suite of J.S. Bach. Most of the weekend's events took place at the spectacular music building on the UNCG campus. This state-of-the-art facility is the crown jewel of the state's music programs and the envy of faculty of some of our other regional music departments. This was actually the second such festival of its kind, the one last year having commemorated the addition of the archives of Luigi Silva to the cello collection. There was no announcement regarding a similar event next year, but we will stay tuned for notices coming from what is rapidly becoming the mecca for cellists.
The events during these exhaustive and exhausting three days were divided between masterclasses (basically music lessons in front of an audience) and concerts featuring many different players. On the first day – some events took place at other university buildings – there were presentations regarding access to the special cello collections. There was an abundance of riches as many masterclasses took place simultaneously, so you had to decide how to divide your time. One of the unique events of the first day was a presentation by Greenhouse (affectionately referred to as "Bernie" by everyone there) on his 1707 "Paganini" Stradivarius cello. Author Nicholas Delbanco, who is Greenhouse's son-in-law, read several passages from his book about the history, acquisition, and renovation of what many consider to be the finest cello ever made by the Italian master. This was followed by Greenhouse playing the simple and beautiful Schumann melody "Traumerei" on his priceless "resonating box."
The opening gala concert took place off campus at the West Market Street United Methodist Church in downtown Greensboro. Whitehouse, playing on a borrowed Gagliano cello made in 1720, was the model of professionalism and grace as he endured slipping pegs and a memory loss to recover and play a brilliant rendition of Bach's Fifth Suite.
Before I go on it should be noted that there can be too much of a good thing, but another reason for the great success of this event was the diversity and imagination of the programming. I can't recall two standard cello/piano pairings in succession. Each program had such a wide range of instrumentation and genres that it was an art in itself. For the complete schedule, see http://www.uncg.edu/mus/greenhouse/schedule.html [inactive 2/06].
The first concert did not even include piano at all! The unaccompanied cello suite was followed by several movements from Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello. Next was the unusual and original instrumentation of violin, viola, and two cellos, in Arensky's Quartet in A minor. The two-cello concept continued after intermission with the first movement of the most famous composition of its kind – the two-cello Quintet in C by Franz Schubert. Our own Ciompi Quartet was joined Rolf Gjeltsen, of the New Zealand String Quartet. The final work of the evening was an event in itself. Ever wonder what it would be like to have four of your favorite musicians play sections of the same concerto in the same concert? Thanks to arranger Douglas Moore, we experienced a round-robin cello quartet version of the famous "Rococo Variations" by Tchaikovsky! David Starkweather, Alexei Romanenko, Selma Gokcen, and Brook Whitehouse alternated as soloist while the others played an arrangement of the orchestral part. It was a truly unforgettable experience.
The rest of the weekend moved to the UNCG music building as attendees rushed from one class to another, barely catching their breath, and attended concerts featuring the finest cellists in the world. During several of the masterclasses, I was struck by an impression that I have also had at many classical guitar festivals: without exception, all the performers in these classes were cellists who play at extraordinarily high levels and are not far from being concert artists in their own right. To me, this almost is like giving more tax breaks to the top one percent, or perks for corporate executives – they are probably the last people who need any help. At future events I would like to see more mere mortals given the opportunity to play and learn from the masters.
The second concert of the festival took place at 2 p.m. on Saturday. In keeping with the innovative programming, it began with two arias from Bach cantatas sung by UNCG tenor and faculty member Robert Bracey. Timothy Eddy, who played with the Orion String Quartet at Duke on March 12, was the featured cellist, along with harpsichord and cello continuo. After almost two hours of cello concerts we finally got to hear the traditional piano/cello combination as the brilliant Brazilian cellist Gustavo Tavares played some wonderful Latin-American works, including a great jazzy piece by clarinet virtuoso Paquito D'Rivera. Moving from one culture to the next, Israeli cellist Amit Peled, recently appointed to the faculty of Peabody – he is the youngest professor of cello in a major conservatory – gave one of the most sensitive and emotional performances I have ever heard. Ernest Bloch's "Three pieces 'From Jewish Life'" was ingrained in the soul of in everyone who was present to hear this amazing performer.
Next was a performance of three sets of preludes and fugues from Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, arranged for cello orchestra by Heitor Villa-Lobos. I have never been a fan of huge choirs of the same instrument, and this did little to change my mind. Despite the presence of 24 excellent and well-known cellists, there were many intonation problems within each part, and this would have been much more effective with a cello quartet.
The highlight of the third concert (Saturday evening) was without a doubt the return of Timothy Eddy for what is possibly one of the most difficult works in the repertoire – the Sonata for Cello and Piano by Elliot Carter. Carter's music has always had a bad rap attached to it as overly cerebral, dense, and nearly inaccessible. This was my first exposure to this work, and I was drawn in and captured by every note. Of course, much of that response was due to the miraculous playing of Eddy and special guest pianist Gilbert Kalish. After that "full day's work," Kalish returned with violinist Ian Swensen and cellist Paul Katz, mostly known for his work with the Cleveland Quartet, for a beautifully-wrought reading of Dvorák's "Dumky" Trio.
The final concert of this amazing weekend took place on Sunday at 1:30 p.m., on the heels of a nice buffet lunch. This was the longest public event, and it featured the most selections. Special recognition deserves to be given to pianist Inara Zandmane. Although there were other accompanists, she carried the bulk of the load, playing an extraordinary amount of difficult literature that she'd mastered in a very short time. It is impossible to go into detail or even mention every performance in more than eight hours of concerts, but each was of the highest caliber. Some came close to being legendary and will be talked about for years.
Steven Doane, professor of cello at Eastman, gave one of these performances. Benjamin Britten wrote three suites for unaccompanied cello. Doane performed the first of these with such elegance and grace that everyone immediately knew this was a very special performance. We also got to hear a reprise of the violin/cello duo with Tilmann Wick, cello and John Fadial, concertmaster of the Greensboro Symphony, playing Martinu's rarely-performed Duo No. 1.
Just when you thought that the level of playing couldn't get any higher, a powerhouse named Qiang Tu, a member of the New York Philharmonic, came out and blew the roof off the auditorium performing the Polonaise Brillante by Chopin. His power, ease, and uncanny technical facility seemed to stun even those who were the objects of similar admiration – many mouths were ajar, in amazement. But even more special were his remarks, after his performance. Tu was quite emotional as he spoke of what Greenhouse meant to him and how he had taken him in, as a member of his family. "Bernie" came on stage and thanked everyone for this tribute and for the entire festival. It was a touching and personal ending for what was a truly magical weekend.
Again, special thanks and admiration go out to Whitehouse, the director of The Greenhouse Celebration. It was a phenomenal success and will be a timeless memory for everyone fortunate enough to have been there.