Chamber Music Wilmington began its 2017-18 season in Beckwith Recital Hall at UNCW, with a return performance by cellist Amit Peled, one of the finest artists on the stage today. From his beginnings on an Israeli kibbutz to a 6'5" basketball player, today Amit Peled (a-MEET PE-led) plays on the priceless cello which once belonged to the legendary Pablo Casals. Along with performing worldwide, he is a professor at the Peabody Institute.
Peled was joined for this performance by six of his students, the "Cello Gang." The Peabody Institute, 160 years old and located on venerable Mt. Vernon Place in Baltimore, is one of the finest conservatories in the world. That was richly apparent in this performance.
The concert began with the Sonata for Two Cellos by Luigi Boccherini. Peled performed the work with his 17-year-old student Mairead Flory. This attractive three-movement piece had good vigor in the outer movements. The tone was full and the two instruments were well-matched. Some sections would have benefitted from a steadier beat. (Here and in the other two multi-movement pieces, the individual movements were not listed in the program, which was something of an omission.)
There followed the second movement of György Ligeti's Sonata for Cello Solo. Marked to be played, in effect, as fast as possible, this almost violent music was given a commanding performance by Jiaoyang Xu. She played with energy and aplomb over the wide range of register the piece demands. Along with full force fff, there were wonderful moments of pp.
Four student performers then came together for the Elegie for Four Cellos by Josef Werner. This was treated to a lush performance, with beautiful lyricism. One could hear in this the rich tone and phrasing of the master teacher, carried by his superb students. Perhaps even too much so at times, as softer accompaniment would have allowed the melodic lines to stand out more fully. The consoling D major ending was almost merry rather than reflective.
The first half ended with the Sonata for Two Cellos in G minor, Op. 2, No. 8, by Handel. Ismael Guerrero played this with Peled. The other five students, in a cello orchestra, comprised the accompaniment. Peled began with his trademark sumptuous long line. Again the two cellos matched well. The allegro movements had good vitality. With purely cello accompaniment however, one missed the contrasting sonority of the keyboard continuo.
The two works after intermission featured Peled as soloist, with the six students as the accompanying ensemble. Here the full excellence of the teacher-student collaboration came to the fore. It worked well when Peled played with a student in a duo; but these pieces with him as leading soloist were fully superb. He is a charismatic virtuoso performer, and he shone wonderfully. At the same time, the ensemble, playing essentially without a conductor, blended superbly with the soloist and with each other. This was collaborative playing at its absolute best.
The second half began with the Concerto for Cello in C by Haydn. One enjoyed the by-now-expected rich tone. With the fine phrasing and beauty of sound in the ensemble, one barely missed the full orchestra of this repertory staple. Peled played with dynamism and vigor and also superb moments of pp. The first-movement cadenza unfolded like a drama. The ensemble shone in the second movement with beautifully phrased long lines. Peled sang his own lines as though they were being created at that very moment. His high-range playing was exquisite. The poetic cadenza was followed by a beautiful re-entrance of the ensemble. The final movement went at an ultra-lively pace and brought the concerto to a rousing conclusion.
The concert ended with the Hungarian Rhapsody by David Popper. Written for the accompaniment of a romantic-era orchestra, there was obvious sacrifice in reducing it to six cellos. Still, the ensemble brought a lively spirit to the piece along with the capricious quality of its tempo and mood changes. Peled put forth full lyricism and blistering virtuosity, which earned a deserved standing ovation.
An unconventional encore rewarded the audience accolades. All seven cellists performed an arrangement of Leonard Cohen's exquisite "Hallelujah," which segued into and out of "What a Wonderful World," a song first made popular by the incomparable Louis Armstrong. This beautifully played and touching tribute to the music of America received a second standing ovation.