The cello gods were smiling down on Greensboro, North Carolina, during the weekend of February 16-18, 2007. In the midst of record-breaking snowfall across much of the U.S. that snarled air travel everywhere, an outbreak of the debilitating norovirus, plus salmonella poisoning in a popular brand of peanut butter, the Varga Celebration at UNC-Greensboro* went off without any discernible problems. Cellists from all over the world spent an incredible weekend at the lovely music building on the UNCG campus in a celebration that has become a tradition but that may be seeing its final fling. Professor of Cello and director of this and all the previous cello celebrations, Brooks Whitehouse, will be moving at the end of this academic year half an hour west to the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.

The Cello Music Collections at UNC-Greensboro have become the single most comprehensive and unique repository of cello music in the world. The latest pledge of scores, original transcriptions, notes and memorabilia come from Laszlo Varga, the honored guest at this cellopalooza. Varga, an incredibly spry 82 year-old, was Principal Cellist of the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos and Leonard Bernstein. He has had a long and distinguished career as teacher at several conservatories, conductor and chamber musician. But the focal point of this festival — and by his own admission his proudest accomplishment — was his enormous catalogue of well-crafted transcriptions and arrangements for multi-cello ensembles. His goal of liberating the cellist from the solitary loneliness of the practice room to a social network of like-minded musicians was in evidence throughout the weekend. In this spirit, groups of cellists arrived from the music schools of Florida State University, University of Virginia, West Virginia, East Carolina University, UNC-Chapel Hill and others to play Varga’s cello ensemble arrangements. Performers ranged from beginners to literally half of the cello section of the North Carolina Symphony. Throughout that wide range of ability and experience, one remarkable trait endured: a supportive and comforting environment without the “fastest gunslinger in the west” ego that poisons some other music festivals (I won’t mention which instruments I have in mind).

The weekend began bright and early on Friday with the reason why we were all gathered — a viewing and discussion of the Varga Cello Music Collection and presentations on access to all of the cello collections at UNCG. The day also featured several master classes (music lessons with an audience) by distinguished guests Manuel Capote and Iris Jortner.

As most cellists will tell you, at least the mortal ones, the name Richard Strauss strikes fear in our heart. Anyone who has labored over the orchestral excerpts from “Don Juan” would say “amen” to that. The opening gala concert featured two of Strauss’ cello works in creative arrangements that show Varga working opposite ends of the spectrum. He expanded the Cello Sonata (originally with just piano accompaniment) to a chamber concerto version mostly featuring woodwinds. As if he didn’t have enough to do as director and administrator of the festival, Brooks Whitehouse was soloist. Conversely, he reduced Don Quixote (a cello concerto without that label) to a work for cello plus quintet of violin, viola, clarinet, horn and piano. The soloist for this was Beth Vanderborgh, principal cellist of both the Greensboro and Winston-Salem Symphonies.

Saturday was by far the busiest day but there was a minimum of concurrent, conflicting events, so most attendees were able to take in just about everything there was to offer. Unfortunately I was late in arriving for the Tai Chi for cellists 8 a.m. session, but those who were there spoke of it in almost life-changing terms regarding their subsequent outlook on playing and the relationship with music and their instruments.

The rest of the morning was devoted to two separate concerts called “Cello Ensemble Showcase.” Each performance featured a group of players from various universities or from studios of cello teachers. The early concert consisted entirely of arrangements by Laszlo Varga except for one by David Garrett — Intermezzo from Goyescas by Granados.  Events like this must be especially gratifying to Varga as he watched and listened to young cellists learning the art of ensemble playing through exposure to works usually not available to cellists. Among the highlights of these concerts was Brent Wissick (Professor of Cello at UNC-Chapel Hill) leading a group of his students in an arrangement of the profoundly moving Sarabande and Bouree from the unaccompanied violin partita in B minor by J.S. Bach. Varga’s ambitious version of “Ihr Habt nun Traurigkeit” from Brahms’ German Requiem was marred by solo mezzo-soprano Melanie Crump, who had her head buried in the music and literally did not look up once. A young cello quartet from the Triangle area with the clever name Red Hot ‘Celli Peppers, coached by Leslie Alperin, was the sole group that did not include a Varga transcription. The ensemble concerts ended in grand style with Bonnie Thron, principal cello of the North Carolina Symphony, leading three of her section colleagues in a fabulous rendition of what many consider as Bach’s greatest masterpiece — the Chaconne from the D minor Partita for Unaccompanied Violin.

In addition to the unprecedented opportunity to hear these wonderful arrangements and to mix and mingle with a collection of some of the greatest cellists in the world, another allure of this festival was the presence of Janos Starker. Recently retired from Indiana University, Starker is a giant of the cello world and is universally recognized as one of its greatest pedagogues and performers. Many attendees who did not carefully peruse the festival brochure were disappointed to learn that Starker would not be playing, but instead held court in a master class. But first we were all treated to an “Oprah for Cellists” as Brooks Whitehouse interviewed both Varga and Starker on the stage of the main UNCG recital hall. Varga is a true showman and wonderful storyteller, while Starker is more restrained and somewhat dour. It was a fascinating glimpse into the New York music scene of the late 1940s as both players emigrated to the United States at nearly the same time.

After everyone rushed out to nearby Tate Street for lunch (think of a little more run-down 9th Street in Durham) we scurried back for the mid-afternoon cello matinee concert featuring and titled “Friends of Varga.” Almost the entire concert was actual pieces or those based on works by Bach. We got to hear a five-string cello (the additional string is the ‘e’ a fifth above the usual ‘a’ high string) playing a gamba sonata, a lovely duo arrangement of the aria from the Goldberg Variations, followed by a disappointing “Fancy on a Bach Airby John Corigiliano. The highlight of the afternoon was a duo arrangement of the solo 5th cello suite by Bach. Jerome Kessler and David Garrett were a dynamic duo in this reversal of expanding the solo cello repertoire to multiple cellos. A humorous tongue-in-cheek ending to the concert was Brooks Whitehouse’s foray into arranging as he and Beth Vanderborgh played a piece called “The Ugly Bachling,” a melding of two of the most popular cello works: Prelude from the first Cello Suite by Bach with “The Swan” by Saint-Saëns.

The auditorium was SRO as three fortunate musicians played for Janos Starker, with everyone hungrily hanging on every word from the gruff master. Actually, he was in a more animated mood than during the earlier interview, and he even poked fun at his reputation for being a tyrannical teacher who revels in ripping students apart. I especially liked his no-nonsense attention to the basics and mechanics of cello playing – something often missing from other teachers’ classes, heavy on philosophy and minutiae.

The honored guest got his chance to show his stuff in Saturday evening’s recital. It was ironic that Laszlo Varga, who has nearly single-handedly developed the concept and repertoire of cello ensembles, decided to play the only solo cello recital of the weekend – consisting entirely of his own transcriptions. In addition to his unquestioned musical mastery, he is quite the affable entertainer who obviously adores what he does. He began with what can only be described as a standup routine on the number of hands and feet needed to play the original works – part Abbot and Costello “Who’s on First” routine, part Victor Borge. Varga is another in a long line of great performers like Horowitz, Rubinstein, Segovia and Casals who performed at a very high level at advanced ages.

Sunday morning came very quickly as we had to choose between four concurrent master classes. I spent most of the time at Brooks Whitehouse’s class, and it soon became easy to see why his studio produces such phenomenal players. His enthusiasm, easy going nature, encouragement, and most of all his ability to articulate solutions to a student’s cellistic problems are an inspiration to players of all levels.

One of the events running in the background (there even was a rehearsal in January!) was preparation for the cello orchestra’s performance of one of Varga’s greatest arrangements – the “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” by Vaughan-Williams. I was honored to be a player in this orchestra and over the weekend there were three rehearsals. Some other events were missed because of this, but it was well worth the opportunity to play alongside a remarkable mixture of virtuosi and near beginners. We were to be the finale of the festival, but first there were many great performances during the final concert.

The devilishly difficult sixth solo Cello Suite by Bach was transformed into a quartet as four players from the NC School of the Arts gave a spirited performance. Sometimes in the quest for impressing everyone with complexity, difficulty and velocity, the nobility and beauty of simplicity is forgotten. David Garrett played a captivating arrangement of a relatively simple adagio by Mozart. He showed us that beautiful sound and expressive phrasing can be as moving as flying fingers.

A cello quartet featuring NC State’s Jonathan Kramer got the loudest hoots and hollers as they took us on a thrilling ride through a Varga arrangement of a Boccherini sonata. Historical perspectives were in full force throughout the weekend, but no more so than when UNCG graduate student Grace Lin played a transforming performance of Gunther Schuller’s “Fantasy,” a work first offered to Starker but premiered by Varga.

Realizing the crush of people heading for cars, planes, trains and bars as soon as the last note would sound, festival director Whitehouse toasted Varga and presented him with a memento before Varga gave the pianissimo downbeat to the Vaughan Williams Fantasia.

As thrilling as it was to be part of this group and playing beside cellists who have performed all over the world, I also wish I could have heard from the audience side the sound of 60 cellos playing this haunting composition. Who needs those squeaky higher strings or honking wind players when you have musicians of this caliber and such an expertly transfigured arrangement!

Whoever takes over the cello position at UNCG will have the unenviable position of following a performance that has raised the level of cello playing in North Carolina to unprecedented heights and in some respects has transformed that institution to a mecca for cellists. We hope these celebrations and festivals remain a part of our state’s culture for many years to come.

*Note: Complete programs and listings of artists may be found at [inactive 11/09] and [inactive 11/09].