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A unique ensemble graced the stage of Hill Hall's Moeser Auditorium at UNC the afternoon of Sunday, January 27. Formed by longtime professor of music Brent Wissick, the Cello Choir currently consists of the seventeen undergraduate students at UNC Chapel Hill who take cello lessons at the school. The group is not listed as an official ensemble of the UNC Department of Music, and less than half of the students in the group are actually music majors. The students meet weekly to rehearse for this annual concert, which features solely cellos and showcases some of the excellent repertoire composed or arranged for cello ensembles.
Because the cellos are almost always among the smallest string section of an orchestra, it was a striking sight to see seventeen players and their instruments lined up in a two-row semicircle that spanned the entirety of the spacious auditorium stage. Adding more uniqueness to the scene was the group's choice of attire. Each of the young men in the group (and some of the women) wore a brightly colored bow tie. Like the musicians' bow ties, the concert was a colorful one. The program was a mix of baroque and contemporary music of every style; some pieces were played by the entire Cello Choir, and there were also quite a few solos and a duet.
The two baroque pieces on the program, "Nun danket alle Gott" and "O Haupt voll Blut," were both written by J.S Bach for a choral ensemble. According to Brent Wissick, the Cello Choir's name was inspired by the cello's reputation for sounding like the human voice. This voice-like quality of the instrument, especially when in great number, was showcased excellently by these two chorales. The majestic sound of the Cello Choir playing the simple but beautiful melody lines was breathtaking, and when the harmonizing parts were introduced, the depth of sound they created was nothing short of glorious. This sound was a result not only of the unique composition of the grou, but also of the musicians’ skill. The seventeen musicians breathed as though they were one, with each note, silence, and phrase perfectly in sync with one another.
As mentioned, the program also included a wide variety of contemporary music. The second piece on the program was actually written by a member of the Cello Choir, James Larkin, a composition major at UNC Chapel Hill. The piece, titled "Bacchanale," is a one-of-a-kind composition full of unique effects requiring the use of very nontraditional techniques, of which James Larkin clearly has mastery. Especially impressive were Larkin's frequent, fast, and perfectly executed shifts down the fingerboard to reach extremely high notes. He played even the highest of notes with startling boldness. This was a truly mesmerizing performance by a talented young cellist and composer.
Larkin's composition was not the only creative piece on the program. Similar in its use of unique effects, the well-liked cello solo "Julie-o" by Mark Summer was also included, played by Courtney Hedgecock, a music education major at UNC Chapel Hill. As she warmed to the eclectic rhythm of the piece, her tone became more confident and she captured the jazzy mood of the music. Everything from the slap pizzicatos to the double stops to the double stop slap pizzicatos was impressively in tune and played boldly. The audience seemed to enjoy Hedgecock's performance of this colorful piece.
Other solos on the program were "Toccata" from the Solo Sonata by George Crumb, "Les mots sont allés," a tone poem written by Luciano Berio for Paul Sacher, and the allegro maestoso from the Solo Sonata, Op 8, by Zoltán Kodály. In addition, Devin Cornacchio and Caleb Wagner performed three duos from Reinhold Gliere's Ten Duos, Op 53. Each of the aforementioned pieces was unique and quite challenging; all were played with passion, confidence, and exceptional skill. On the topic of the soloists, those musicians who did not play solos should also be commended for their excellent stage etiquette. Their focus was directed towards the soloists for the entirety of each solo, and there was absolutely no fidgeting.
About three-quarters of the way through the program, Brent Wissick spoke to the audience for the first time in the concert. He introduced "Modinha," from Bachianas Brasilieras No. 1, by Hector Villa-Lobos, as a "gem of cello choir repertoire." He explained that Villa-Lobos wrote the piece with the intention of combining the rhythms and melodies of Brazil with the discipline and structure of Bach's style. The piece took the audience on a journey through a maze of different rhythms and interesting melody lines. Once again, the Cello Choir's gorgeous blend of sounds, conscientious phrasing, and excellently contrasting dynamics made for an engaging performance.*
The concluding two pieces, also played by the whole ensemble, were composed by living American composers. The first,"Ad Pacem," by John Fitz Rogers, a composer from South Carolina, was composed in memory of Mstislav Rostropovich. The piece begins with a fittingly melancholic tone that subtly crescendos to a particularly passionate forte section. The sound of the seventeen cellists playing this expressive melody line was, quite simply, beautiful, and the sound filled the auditorium. The concluding piece, "Tango," was written by North Carolina composer Martha Bishop, who attended UNCG back when it was still an all-girls school. "Tango" is a short, fun piece that the Cello Choir played with style, ending with a dramatic flourishes of the bows. The quirky piece was a wonderful conclusion to the unique program.
Anyone who attended the Cello Choir's concert knew they had received a special treat. It is not often one has the opportunity to see and hear seventeen young and talented cellists wearing neon bow ties and offering such a unique collection of repertoire, all skillfully performed. The concert was certainly deserving of the enthusiastic applause that followed it.
*Villa-Lobos conducted several recordings of "Modinha" including this one from France, in YouTube.