A Tale of Two Cellists

Our Sanders Theatre Series ends this spring featuring the collaboration of two fine cellists who have each founded and formed superb chamber music series in two of the most cosmopolitan and international cities in the northeast of our continent. On Thursday, May 9, Boston Chamber Music Society will open the eighteenth edition of the Festival de Musique de Chambre de Montreal and on Sunday, May 12, bring to a close our 30th Anniversary Season in Cambridge.

I first met cellist Denis Brott, artistic director of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, when we were students at the Aspen Summer Music Festival and School in 1964. Since then our paths have diverged and intersected in many ways, most notably for me, as a guest in his festival for well over a decade.

I first met cellist Ronald Thomas, founding artistic director of BCMS as a member of a string trio formed by Young Concert Artists, Inc., of three recent winners of its annual International auditions. The violinist of that trio was Hiroko Yajima (Rhodes), mother-to-be of Harumi Rhodes, who is currently a BCMS member musician.

Each cellist, coincidentally, and perhaps unknown to them, shares in common a love of the mastery and artistry of the famed cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. Together, for the first time, they will open our concert with Suite for Two Cellos and Piano written by Gian Carlo Menotti (founder of the Festival dei due Mondi in Spoleto Italy) for cellists Piatigorsky and Brott. It was premiered forty years ago this month, in May, 1973 at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center by cellists Gregor Piatigorsky and Leslie Parnas with Charles Wadsworth, founding artistic director of CMSLC, at the piano.

To my ear Suite for Two Cellos and Piano shows influences of Baroque imitation between the two principals with a neo-Baroque, Stravinsky-like accompaniment. However, at its heart, in third movement, we hear the kind of singing lines above luscious harmonic writing that prompted Francis Poulenc to say left listeners with ‘red eyes and beating hearts’ (when writing about Menotti’s opera The Consul).

Thereafter, our program takes us into a world of tragedy and deliverance that is Dimitri Shostakovitch’s Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57. It, too, speaks first in the ancient language and stately character of the Baroque, opening with a resounding G minor chord that could easily be the same chord that opens Bach’s great organ Prelude and Fugue in the same key. Unlike the Bach, the fugue that follows is muted and solemn—not fleet and playful—like a procession to the inevitable. A searing Scherzo follows. But next, the solemn procession continues with solo violin above a walking jazz-like bass pizzicato. The last movement, opening and concluding in G major, offers little more than a ray of hope.

Our program concludes with Schubert’s great String Quintet in C major with two cellos. There is a reason this work is requested to provide communal solace at the most difficult times. In the twisting qualities of its opening chords we hear at once that bitter and sweet are two sides of the same experience; that as melodies soar above palpitating rhythms, so, too, can the spirit above the troubled and restless heart. The slow movement takes us into ‘the dark night of the soul,’ but follows that with the sublime deliverance only Schubert can imagine. The exuberance of the Scherzo is interrupted by a plunge into the depths of mourning in the Trio. The Finale, if about nothing else, is for me the embodiment of restoration and acceptance. More than any other work in our repertoire, the Quintet truly provides a transformative experience.

When we return to Sanders next fall, Schubert will again be our guide with his Fantasie in F minor for piano four hands, played by our superb pianists. Until then, be well, stay strong.

And Enjoy.


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