Sunday afternoon was graced by a fine concert in Chamber Music Raleigh's Sights and Sounds on Sundays Series, hosted by the North Carolina Museum of Art. Cello Fourum, a quartet of four cellos, consists of Mark Moskovitz, Peng Li, Nathaniel Yaffe, and David Meyer – among the finest cellists in the state. They founded the ensemble in 2014 and are a welcome addition to the chamber music scene.
The literature for four cellos is, for the most part, generated by cellists themselves, usually in the form of arrangements. There are some original compositions starting in the 19th century. The large range of the cello allows for quite a bit of literature to be adapted. It takes considerable skill to handle the stratospheric upper reaches required to cover all the notes in imported scores. The challenge is to keep voices distinct with four cellos, without the luxury of contrasting instrumentation or voices. One way to keep things interesting is to opt for short works instead of the twenty- or thirty-minute pieces we frequently encounter in chamber music; that was the tack taken in this concert, and was probably a very good idea.
Usually in the Sights and Sounds Series, the program is coordinated with the visual arts available in the museum. This concert did not mention the visual part of the show, but I didn't hear any complaints. Frequently, the link between exhibits and music is somewhat strained, and it is far from clear what kind of unambiguous association could be made between this program and any of the art in the museum, so it was probably best to dispense with that this time.
The first work was the Overture to Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. This was offered coincidentally at the same exact time North Carolina Opera was performing the work, which was a nice touch. It was a fine, up-tempo, and sparkling way to get things started and lent itself well to the arrangement. As with most of the program, it took some real chops to hit all the notes.
Next was "Evening Prayer" from the opera Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdink, arranged by Moskovitz. This gentle and beautiful excerpt is well-loved by many and was a good choice for four cellos.
This was followed by "Erlkönig" by Franz Schubert, arranged from the original (composed in 1815) for voice and piano. The piano part is characterized by rapidly repeating triplets, meant to mimic horse hooves, which for my money works better on cello. The only drawback, which is a factor in everything for four cellos as noted above, is distinguishing the solo from the accompaniment. This was done mostly very well in this performance, but of course it was not the same as having a voice with a piano. The singer needs to portray four different characters in this song, so that aspect is not possible for cellos. It did work fine in its own context here.
The string of old chestnuts was broken with new music by Nicholas Daniel Lopez (born 1985), "Grey Glass Panes." In contrast to the preceding work, this was all slow, and a touch muddled in texture. (Schubert is a hard act to follow.) The musicians clearly understood the composition well and know the composer personally. It is to their credit to undertake new music like this. However, it was not a particularly memorable piece.
Time for a confection; that came in the form of "Konzertwalzer" by Wilhelm Fitzenhangen (1848-1890), a German cellist best known for his premiere performance and editing of Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme. This was a most enjoyable and light-hearted bit of fun – very Viennese. In the right hands (which these certainly were) and with the right composition, it can really come off without the very-old-pop-music-no-longer-in-vogue problem, and it did work fine this time.
Switching gears to the maximal extent, this was followed by "Adagio" by Samuel Barber, arranged by Meyer from the original string quartet movement. While it works with four cellos, the original is so well-known, and so well-designed for string quartet or string orchestra, that it is hard to see the version for four cellos as a real improvement, or even as being as well-suited to the music. It seems to call for violins, especially in the high climax near the end. However, it was striking enough in this performance to really move the audience, and some gave an unusual mid-program standing ovation at the conclusion.
We were treated next to Hungarian Peasant Songs by Béla Bartók, arranged by cellist Laszlo Varga. (John Lambert confided to me that Varga's papers are now at UNCG.) Varga was a Hungarian-born American cellist and a Jewish survivor of a Nazi labor camp in Hungary. This lively compilation of songs was quite a treat and a good fit for the ensemble.
After that, we returned to America with "Squartet" by cellist Matt Walker (born 1968), an odd work that starts off with a quote from the beginning of Rossini's William Tell Overture, one of the more famous bits for cello ensemble in the standard literature. It then veers off into more contemporary territory, with much influence from the blues and funk.
The finale was a pair of tangos by Astor Piazzolla – "Milonga" and "La Muerte del Angel." At the conclusion was an enthusiastic standing ovation from a sold-out crowd. This was followed by a brief encore – "Ave Maria" by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen
A terrific show and much enjoyed. Cello Fourum is a fine local asset and contributes well to the rich flavor of our cultural life in the Triangle.