Cellist Gal Nyska stopped in Raleigh on his way to Berlin, remaining just long enough to play a fine solo recital in Smedes Parlor, at St. Mary’s School. He’s one of our own, largely trained here by NC Symphony artists Leonid Zilper and Bonnie Thron and then polished by a flock of folks in NY where, now, the one-time student has morphed into a teacher at the Lucy Moses School and a teaching assistant to Joel Krosnick at Juilliard. They seem to grow up fast, nowadays, but Nyska’s still young and thus just on the cusp of his career.

He said he’s been playing the Bach cello suites since he was ten, so he’s devoted more than half his life to them, and this showed in his thoughtful, insightful playing. Perhaps because he’s young, he exudes lots of energy and enthusiasm, and his playing — of the First Suite, in G, S.1007, and of the Third Suite, in C, S.1009 — was at times heavily accented and dramatic. These works can take varying interpretations, of course. Three NCS players (including Thron) recently completed a traversal of all of ’em, reviewed herein by Ken Hoover (see our reviews of Bach Suites 1, 2, 3 and Suites 4, 5, 6 for thorough discussions of these works). And in truth you come across them just about any place you encounter a cellist. As most music lovers know, Bach’s music lends itself to wider ranges of interpretation than just about anyone else’s – as countless classical people, not to mention jazz artists and commercial musicians, have demonstrated. We can’t know how Bach might have wanted these things played. We do know that cellos in Bach’s time weren’t the relatively high-tech, larger voices instruments we hear so often today.

Someone said that when this room at St. Mary’s was built, it was the largest in the state. It was full of people on this occasion, and the people listened with unusual care, mostly sitting absolutely still. You could have heard pins drop while Nyska played. He made the music his own, convincing us – during the performances – that this way was the best way for this artist to play them at this moment in time. It will surely be rewarding to continue to hear and monitor Nyska as he grows as an artist and to hear him come back to these suites – and the other four – over the years to come.

Filler between the two Bach works was provided by the first US performance of Menachem Wiesenberg’s “Monodialogue,” a fantasy (of sorts) for solo cello, originally for solo viola (1999/2005). Nyska said he’d recently worked with the composer so we must conclude this performance reflected his wishes. It’s laden with technical challenges, including double harmonics (that create ghostly chorale-like impressions) and all manner of other tricks, but the virtuosic demands didn’t seem to get in the way of the music, which was consistently engaging. If some of it suggested cadenzas for Shostakovich’s concertos or Prokofiev’s cello symphony or Britten’s astonishing suites, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For this work and for the Bach, too, there was heartfelt and prolonged applause. There was a single encore, the “Song of the Birds,” a Catalan folk tune adapted and popularized by Casals.

I mentioned Berlin at the outset. Nyska was flying there the next day to audition for Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and for one of Berlin’s opera companies. Ah, to be so young, so thin, so talented! And to think – we heard him here, first….

This series continues with a final concert on April 13. We’ll have details in our calendar when the artist(s) and program are announced.