Bonnie Thron is best known hereabouts as Principal Cello of the NC Symphony, but she’s a major artist by any standard whose work has covered the musical waterfront from solo recitals to chamber music to teaching and coaching. Her recital in Duke’s Nelson Music Room was paired with a masterclass presented last November. Normally there is not quite so much distance between classes and concerts at the Gothic Rockpile, but Thron is anything but a lady of leisure, and when all was done and said, the recital was worth the wait and then some!

The program itself was as exceptional as the playing. The evening began with Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4, in which Thron was joined by pianist Frank Pittman, of Meredith College. The work – like its four companions – was published as a “Sonata for Piano and Cello,” and that handle carries the essence of the music, for it requires artists of comparable artistic sensitivity and technical expertise. As it happens, this C major sonata is also a most unusual score in a sort of old-fashioned format (two movements only, both slow-fast), and it’s not the sort of thing any run-of-the-mill duo would dream of picking to launch a program. That Thron and Pittman (or, if you prefer, Pittman and Thron) are not run-of-the-mill was evident from the very first measures of a refined and engaging performance that ranks among the finest this writer has yet heard. Indeed, the introduction to the first movement would have made the trip to Durham worthwhile, had nothing else been played – yes, it was that special. Nor did the rest of the reading disappoint in any way. These folks have strong senses of long lines, so the phrasing was exceptionally fine. And of course they work extremely well together, so the sense of partnership so important to a successful interpretation was paramount throughout. Thron is a splendid orchestral artist with abundant artistic and leadership abilities. That she’s also a force to be reckoned with in recitals and chamber music merely enhances her importance in the overall scheme of things.

The second selection was George Crumb’s Sonata for Solo Violoncello, an early, thoroughly accessible work that turns 50 years old in March. Nelson was pretty well populated for a cold Tuesday night in January, and Thron drew her listeners into Crumb’s special sound world quickly and indeed painlessly. The Beethoven had helped set the stage, of course – this was, as noted, a masterfully-constructed program. There is as much passion in the opening movement of the Crumb Sonata as in some whole symphonies, and Thron projected its wide-ranging emotions brilliantly. The second movement is a set of often-quite-sophisticated variations on a fairly rustic tune, and the finale is a driving, intense toccata that elicited some bravos and cheers. So far, so good!

Next month, cellist Laszlo Varga will be saluted and feted at UNCG, where his large collection of scores and manuscripts now resides (see our Triad calendar for details). In preparation for that event, Thron and three of her NCS colleagues – Elizabeth Beilman, John McClellan, and Gerald Nelson – played Varga’s arrangement of the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2. If this were the Congressional Record, we’d be justified in saying that Bach’s “remarks” were “revised and extended” by Varga, for he gave to four cellists what one lone fiddler of competence can do all by him/herself! Still, it was a fascinating and often bracing transcription, one that at times suggested what Hamilton Harty did to Handel. The playing left little to be desired – the great long phrases permitted by doling out the music to four artists were here and there amusing, but the rendition was awesome and everyone – with the possible exception of fiddlers and “HIP” (historically-informed performance) partisans – must have been duly impressed. (It’s purely coincidental that this followed by just two days Eric Pritchard’s performance of the Third Partita, served up with contemporary scores between its several movements. Click here for a review of that recital.)

The concert ended with Ernö Dohnányi’s Sonata, Op. 8. Like the Crumb, this is an early work, one that looks back on the Romantic era with a good deal of sentiment and perhaps some misgivings and apprehension. The second movement may be the closest thing in captivity to a cello version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”; the realization of it by Thron and Pittman left little doubt of their virtuosity, and never mind their senses of humor! Its finale is an often-dazzling set of variations that set up a nice balance with the second movement of Crumb’s Sonata. Ultimately, however, it was the slow, reflective passages that allowed these outstanding artists to grasp the hearts of their audience, and at the end, the crowd showered them with richly-merited applause.

Note: Thron and Pittman join violinist Carol Chung and violist David Marschall for music by Bach, Mozart, Martinu, and Brahms on Sunday, January 28, at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh. See our Triangle calendar for details.