Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Cello Shots

March 18, 2012

L-R: Frans Helmerson, Miklós Perényi, Jian Wang, Ronald Leonard, Thomas Demenga, and Jean-Guihen Queyras at Zipper Hall Photo : mine 2012
The inaugural Piatigorsky International Cello Festival has been taking place in town over the last two weeks. I’ve not had the time I’d wished to attend many of the events much less actually get around to writing about some of the great living cellists who’ve made rare appearances here. On Saturday, I did attend one of three festival performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic each featuring a different cellist, performing different pieces for cello and orchestra. Saturday drew my interest since it featured Mischa Maisky playing one of the thorniest of the standard cello concertos, Shostakovich’s First, which he originally composed for Mstislav Rostropovich in 1959. It can be boisterous but is also filled with some brutal solo passages with aggressive attacks and defiant pizzicato. It was last heard here in 2007 with the L.A. Phil's own principal cellist, Peter Stumpf. Maisky went for high drama and crafted solos that were more about the forceful texture of the attack than precision. It was fair enough, but I sometimes felt that the bigger picture of the work was slipping out of reach. Maisky also delivered a rather odd cello transcription of Lensky’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. It was filled with effects I assume were meant to replicate vocal performance, but ended up sounding rather breathy and mannered overall. There was an encore, the Sarabande from Bach’s unaccompanied cello suite No. 5, arguably the best known of Bach’s music for cello. It too felt somewhat rough-hewn, lacking a certain subtlety.

The rest of the program consisted of Dvorák’s Carnival Overture, which opened the evening and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. Both were given somewhat workman like readings under the baton of Neeme Järvi who was returning to the L.A. Phil for the first time in nearly two decades. Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is one burdened in recent years with the weight of extra psychological interpretation. It was the composer's comeback moment after his first artistic falling-out with Stalin. And while it got him back in good with the musical powers of the moment with its patriotic, almost propagandist manner, its story was far from over. In recent years, some parties have interpreted the work as a deceptive parody of or a commentary on the Communist system under which Shostakovich struggled to contend with as an artist. Järvi was having none of this, taking the symphony on its own terms in a performance that was spirited, but straight-forward and never on fire. It was nice, which is a word that the best Shostakovich performances should never strive to be.

I was far more impressed with the marathon evening presented last Sunday as part of the Piatigorsky Festival when all six of the Bach cello suites were presented at Zipper Hall, each played by a different cellist. These works weren’t designed to be played together, and when they are it can be a bit of a slog. But the festival organizers were smart in crafting a show that gave the sold out crowd a lot to consider with the different interpretive choices of the six soloists who included (in order from Suite 1 through Suite 6) Ronald Leonard, Frans Helmerson, Jian Wang, Thomas Demenga, Miklós Perényi, and Jean-Guihen Queyras. The differences could be remarkable and the playing was often exciting in very different ways. Demenga tore through the Fourth like a house on fire almost turning mechanical at times. This was followed by one of the true greats, Perényi, whose studied, lyrical version of the Sarabande from the Fifth Suite left the version from Saturday night from Maisky on the cutting room floor. But then there was the almost explosive Wang whose version of No.3 sounded orchestral in scope as if he were playing for an entire section of cellos. It was an evening of many voices that underscored the magic of Bach not only in the music's beautiful construction but in the vast room within it for interpretation in the context of performance. And while not all that excitement found its way into Saturday's L.A. Philharmonic performance, the cello suites were certainly a highlight of the festival.


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