"Cellomania II" – a mostly new extravaganza – graced the stage of the Highlands Performing Arts Center, also known as the Martin-Lipscomb PAC, on a lovely Sunday afternoon. The hall, with a broad platform stage, a nice enough small grand piano, and very decent acoustics, seats around 250 people, and there's adequate (free) parking in the immediate vicinity. It's the summer home base of the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival, one of the jewels in the cultural crown of the Tar Heel State.
The instigator-in-chief of this program was Sara Sant'Ambrogio, the cellist of the Eroica Trio, which wrapped up a pair of concerts just the day before. This program will be repeated on July 18 in Cashiers. After the concert, the cellist was already talking about the program for Edition III that she will soon propose to HCCMF artistic director William Ransom. For cellists and cello fans, this is becoming the place to be in the Southeast, at least.
Sant'Ambrogio is a fabulous cellist with an infectious approach to making music with verve and enthusiasm, and she knows other significant cellists on whom she calls from time to time for programs like this. The lineup was significant. James Waldo and his pianist spouse Alyona Aksyonova are based in NY. Guang Wang is the cellist of the Vega Quartet, and Lexine Feng, who is all of 13, is Wang's student. David Hancock is affiliated with Chamber Music Atlanta. And Benjamin Karp is based at the University of Kentucky but is perhaps best known hereabouts for his summer work just up the road as head of strings at the Brevard Music Center.
These players, all remarkably well-matched, entered into the spirit of the concert with palpable enthusiasm, aiding and abetting Queen Sara as they formed a very Royal Consort indeed!
One can hardly have a cello program without Bach, so this one opened with the Third Suite, S.1009, with everyone playing the Prelude and concluding Gigue and with the other movements arrayed (in the order heard) among Waldo, Karp, Wang, Feng, and Hancock (with Feng also playing the repeat of the first bourée). The massed cellos suggested the sonority created when Villa Lobos mustered whole orchestras of these instruments to play Bach. Someone wondered what Old Bach might have thought of this. Chances are he'd have been tickled pink.
Sant'Ambrogio and Feng then turned to the "Flower Duet" from Delibes' Lakmé, performing it in an arrangement by Sant'Ambrogio. Pianist Aksyonova provided fine support. Sopranos need not bother applying in the future.
And then the whole bunch returned to assay Gaspar Cassadó's "Requiebros" (1934), written for (solo) cello and piano but as in the Bach played by everybody from time to time and with bits of the melody divvied up among all the cellists. The crowd loved it, despite the absence of any person of Spanish birth in the lineup.
Part two began with Popper's famous Requiem (1892) for three solo cellos and (originally) orchestra, heard here in a version with piano and played by Wang, Hancock, and Waldo. This is the obligatory memorial piece for cellists, and it’s rare to encounter it in other circumstances. (The program notes – models of their kind – identified the original dedicatee, the publisher Daniel Rahter, of Hamburg.) The reading was compelling in its depth of emotion.
And then there came the grand finale, Saint-Saëns' Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 33. One might have expected a version featuring Sant'Ambrogio with piano accompaniment. One might have forgotten this was "Cellomania II." No, this was given in a version credited to Douglas Moore – yes, that Douglas Moore, the composer of The Devil and Daniel Webster and The Ballad of Baby Doe – for solo cello and five accompanying celli. We mentioned Sant'Ambrogio's verve and enthusiasm, qualities that were exemplified here as she engaged everyone in a performance the likes of which we're probably not going to encounter again except perhaps at "Cellomania III." The familiar score was over too soon, eliciting an immediate standing ovation that went on and on till everyone returned again for a thoroughly engaging "Swan" – also by Saint-Saëns – played as the Bach and Cassadó had been, with some portions involving all the players and others shared among them.
Memorable? You bet. Fun, too. Look for announcements of the next edition. And if you’re in the area, head for Cashiers on July 18 for a repeat of this one. See the sidebar for details.