Cellist Brent Wissick ought to be awarded a medal for creative programming for his stimulating Hill Hall concert on the evening of February 17. For the first time in this critic’s experience, a soprano and a cello choir shared a hall and did not perform Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. Indeed neither were ever on stage at the same time. Two major solo works for cello were the focus of the first half of the program. Soprano Terry Rhodes and pianist Zina Astrakhan followed with three Russian folk songs arranged by Tchaikovsky that related to Wissick’s second solo. A briefer solo work served as his encore. The entire second half of the concert featured a choir of sixteen violoncellos playing eight short works that Wissick led directly or most often as first cellist among the ensemble of his students.

A unified and coherent account of Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D Minor opened the concert. It was elegantly phrased, and seldom have I heard Wissick play any better. The rhetoric of its structure was cogently argued. His burnished cello tone ranged from the baritone to the tenor range. His fingering was dazzling in the Courante. The intricate bowings of the final gigue were a delight to the eyes and the ears.

Sandwiched between the Bach and the three short Russian songs was Britten’s Third Suite for Cello, Op. 87 (1971). This piece quotes Bach’s First Cello Suite in its Lento (Barcarola) movement and all three Russian songs are quoted in the last movement, marked Lento solenne (Passacaglia; folk songs and hymns). The songs are “Under the Little Apple Tree,” “Autumn,” and “The Grey Eagle.” The program notes, with pianist Astrakhan’s translations, indicated that “in Russian, ‘eagle’ can refer to a young man who is not only handsome but strong, confident and attentive: a good lover.” The hymn is the one of two versions of the Kontakion. Mention must be made of Wissick’s excellent and extensive program notes–a model of their kind. The background of the creation of the cello suites of Britten and the literally physically overwhelming influence of Mstislav Rostropovich was wittily recounted. The ban on the great cellist’s travel, imposed by Soviet authorities, prevented his scheduled premiere of the Third Suite at the 1972 Aldeburgh Festival. This Suite seems to exhaust the range of cello technique, encompassing (for example) pizzicatos mixed with brusque bowing, remarkable swirling or twisting bowings and exploitation of the extremes of the cello’s range–especially the extreme high registers. The nine movements are an example of “hidden” variation technique. Wissick’s notes explain that “Only at the end do you hear undisguised the three Russian folk songs and the Orthodox hymn on which all the previous movements are based.”

Rhodes was in good voice for the three Russian songs, sung in their original language. Insofar as a non-speaker familiar with only with opera libretti could tell, her diction and pronunciation were fine. Her voice was well supported and well projected in the troubling acoustics of the hall. Bearing no resemblance to an old popular American song, the first song, “Under the Little Apple Tree,” was slow and exploited the lower voice range. The second was faster and brighter, much more cheery than its title “Autumn” would suggest. The cynical story of a woman attracted to crisp clean uniforms, be they worn by her soldier-lover off to War or the local mailman, unfolded within variable rhythms in the last song, “The Grey Eagle.” Able accompanist Astrakhan was, as noted, responsible for the printed translations.

David Eby’s “Celtic Passage” ended the first half and effectively functioned as an encore for Wissick’s solo portion of the concert. It brought forth more bowing and fingering fireworks similar to those explored in the Britten.

Considering the number of student cellists present on stage – sixteen – and any differences in their degrees of mastery, the quality of intonation maintained throughout the Cello Choir portion of the concert was remarkable. Careful re-tuning three times certainly repaid the effort. Three Renaissance Dances (1974) arranged by Brian Joyce opened the program. The Pavan was slow and melancholy with some variety in dynamics. The short Almain was fast and lively and was a better test of skills. The moderately fast Corranto was rhythmically interesting. Increasingly complicated divided parts were the rule for the rest of the concert. “O Sacred Head,” a Bach transcription, had a familiar tune treated rather richly, like those of Stokowski. Johann Hentzschel’s “Canzona à 8” (1649) featured staggered entrances and very elaborate divisions among the players. Three choir cellists joined Wissick for more prominent solo portions within Colin Hampton’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Legend.” Kenny Bullock’s “Hiding from Humans (Fuzzcat)” proved to be a fun piece to watch as well as to hear. Amid pizzicato strings, the vibrato of two solo cellos gave more than a hint of a meow. At one point, the back eight cellos were bowing while the front row plucked their strings. There were portions with rhythmic complexity as well as complicated divisions within the choir. Wissick set his cello aside to closely conduct this piece. Martha Bishop’s arrangement of “Devil’s Dream” served as a lively printed encore for the Cello Choir’s portion of the concert. Was that fast dance a reel?