RALEIGH, NC – Seated only a row away from the F-holes on Amit Peled‘s American cello, his sound was raw, almost gritty. Full of conviction and without unnecessary coquettishness, his playing was direct and felt insistently authentic. Accompanying on piano, Solomon Eichner‘s playing was supportive, warm, and complementary to Peled’s dynamic stage presence. And like a chef starts a great meal with sparkling wine, Peled and Eichner started with Gershwin. Together, their performance of Gershwin’s Three Preludes for Piano, arranged for piano and cello, was effervescent, full of character, and a celebratory start for the final concert of Chamber Music Raleigh‘s 82nd season.

Widening in scope, Peled’s and Eicher’s performance of the Adagio from Florence Price‘s String Quartet in G and an arrangement of the spiritual “Motherless Child” were brief yet distinctly part of the colloquially titled program, “American Landscapes.” Connecting the program to his own experiences, Peled shared with us about his journey for citizenship, his family’s life in Baltimore, and his relationship with the famous Catalan cellist, Pablo Casals. Casals was famous for his American chamber music tour from coast to coast by train, stopping at every small town with a train station along the way. For a number of years, Peled even played on the very cello that once belonged to Casals. After performing in Duluth, Minnesota almost exactly 100 years after Casals performed in the same city, Peled decided to revive the legacy of Casals’ recital programs. Taking his performances across America, Peled told New York Times in 2016 that he wants “to bring classical music where it belongs, to people.” Here, Peled introduced Casals’ philosophy of the concert as a meal: characteristic and piquant aperitifs, the hearty entrée, and a pleasingly simple dessert.

Finishing appetizers with two dynamic selections from Copland’s Billy the Kid, Peled served us the same uniform intensity of sound. I use the word “uniform” to convey the cohesive sound concept Peled used to connect such a broad variety of musical styles without anything feeling generic, overly conditioned, or preservative. With our appetites sufficiently stoked, Peled and Eichner presented the entrée, Barber’s Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 6. Like a good entrée, it was finished with aromatics, a depth of seasoning, and a palate of interesting ingredients. Almost full, I was skeptical at first how Peled was going to serve the Herbert cello concerto as dessert, but I left totally convinced! The concerto is structurally and melodically simple, with showy but confectionary ornamentation.

Before the final concerto, Peled and Eichner offered us an amuse-bouche and performed an arrangement of Max Bruch‘s “Kol Nidrei” from his Adagio on Hebrew Melodies for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 47. Based on a melody used in the liturgy for Yom Kippur, Bruch composed this piece after learning several Hebrew melodies from the chief cantor in Berlin. Though not Jewish himself, Bruch wrote, “Even though I am Protestant, as an artist I deeply felt the outstanding beauty of these melodies…” Peled and Eichner both admitted that although the piece didn’t quite fit on their “American Landscapes” program, they felt the need to play it regardless.

Peled and Eichner’s performance of the “Kol Nidrei” was heartfelt, conveying determined resilience in the face of undeserved hardship. This arrangement in particular capitalized on the cello’s convincing narrative voice. But as beautiful as the performance was, the introduction of the piece was abrupt and astringent. Intending to memorialize the terrorist attack against Israel on October 7 of 2023, Eichner presented a sanitized and one-sided perspective on the ensuing conflict between Israel and Palestine. The audience resonated with Eichner as he posed that the Jews have survived thousands of years of attacks and will continue to survive a thousand more. But the exchange became most uncomfortable when it was implied that taking a critical stance towards Israel exposes a person as antisemitic. As this was supposed to be the “dessert” portion of the concert, I’m not sure if it was quite as easy to swallow for everyone in the audience as it was intended.

So much of this concert celebrated the heterogeneity of the United States – Peled and Eichner curated a program that puts the most celebrated composers of American music right alongside composers whose identities would’ve been shunned only a couple decades ago. Sprinkling in personal anecdotes in support of their musical selection, both performers reinforced a theme of citizenship and by my interpretation, an extension of belonging and acceptance. But for me, there was insurmountable cognitive dissonance listening to an arrangement of the spiritual, “Motherless Child,” without so much as an acknowledgement of the number of Palestinian children and civilians killed since the October 7 attack against Israel. I am in no position to, nor do I strive to discredit performers for expressing both the grief and fortitude of their history, but I do believe there is a way to do so without turning a blind eye to credible concerns. Less like dessert and more like a jawbreaker, this was a hard course to chew.