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Berlin Philharmonic's Twelve Cellists

We welcome the following review from guest contributor Sophia Vastek, another Ionarts exclusive.

Tuesday evening at the Music Center at Strathmore, the German Embassy presented an incredibly powerful concert in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The musicians were the Twelve Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the finest orchestras in the world (scheduled to play tonight at Carnegie Hall), and their cello section only exceeded the high-bar expectations of their parent ensemble. Touted as an “orchestra within an orchestra,” the cellists started with Bach and ended with Duke Ellington, running the gamut of sacred and secular in between and purveying comfortable ease with all. Even without a clear leader, the musicians were so perfectly unified in every aspect that they seemed to transcend their numbers and were truly of one mind.

The opening of the Bach, a selection from The Art of Fugue, was so transparent and utterly simple that it did not sound like three instruments were playing (which they were). The piece was exactly as Bach should be, without the added weight of interpretation and what could have been heaviness through sheer numbers. In an arrangement of the Trio from Mendelssohn's Elijah, the musicians showcased the ability of their instrument to imitate the human voice, in the range of the cello and warmth of its sound. Again, in the Poulenc cantata, the Romantic and thick harmonies were hauntingly pastoral, but sung simplicity in typical Poulenc fashion was most important. Even amid the most complex textures, the ensemble never became merely a wash of sound. A Verdi selection was especially multi-faceted: each layer a different idea and quality all together, despite being comprised of the same instruments. In Casals’ arrangement of Song of the Birds, a Catalan folksong, compounded by the thick droning accompaniment, the first cellist’s solo (which comprises the bulk of the piece) was utterly hair-raising.

Other Reviews:

Andrew Lindemann Malone, Playing the Dozen: The 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic at the Music Center at Strathmore (DMV Classical, November 12)
The second half, of a more popular and secular ilk, juxtaposed Gershwin, Elvis Presley, and Duke Ellington with more jarringly modern music by Berlin composer Boris Blacher and the downright schmaltzy sounds of Hildegard Knef. Blacher’s set of three pieces, written specifically for the ensemble, used many of the tricks possible for the cello and number of musicians. The espagnola was the first and only time that the first cellist emerged as a true leader, beating time as the rest of the musicians forged ahead on a demanding piece written solely in pizzicatos. The concert ended with two standards, Clap Yo’ Hands by George Gershwin and Caravan by Duke Ellington. Not only was the ensemble capable of having fun, they showed they were good at it, as the players deftly handled the rhythmic and harmonic complexity and occasional improvisatory nature of these pieces, propelling the evening to an exciting close.

This concert, part of a series of events hosted by the German Embassy entitled “Freedom Without Walls,” was introduced by German Ambassador Klaus Scharioth, who expressed his country’s gratitude to the United States for supporting them in their time of rebuilding. The program was a powerful argument that all things are possible, especially if there is music such as this in the world.


Unknown said...

Bach "without the added weight of interpretation?"

Is the writer suggesting that a mechanical performance best suits Bach's music?

Lindemann said...

Not quite exclusive.

I'll link to yours.

Sophia Vastek said...

KC - Thank you for your comment! I'm really glad you brought this up, looking back on my wording of that sentence. There are obviously very refined and sophisticated ways of interpreting and performing Bach, and I certainly didn't mean to imply that a mechanical way of playing Bach is the best (and these players were just about the farthest thing from.) What I meant to convey, and perhaps my choice of words was not the best, was that the ensemble did not worry about producing specific interpretative sounds in their playing - especially since they are obviously very far from the original intended sound and instrumentation - that they let the music speak for itself and let the audience discover the music for themselves.

Anonymous said...

Caravan was actually written by Juan Tizol, a member of Duke Ellington's band.

Anonymous said...

A very nice review by Miss Vastek - but it would hve been fine finding a photography of today's ensemble in the article. The picture above shows the musicians who founded the formation some thirty years ago. Wonderful cellists, of course ...

Greetings from Germany

Charles T. Downey said...

I know, I know -- I just liked the image of 'The Wall' of cellists, which is why I picked it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Downey,

sorry for not having seen a correspondence (right word???) between the purpose of the event and the photography you chose. Maybe it's because the cellists are so vivid and agile in their concerts that a wall ist the last thing they would remind me of.

Charles T. Downey said...

Anyway, you can follow the link to the Twelve Cellists' Web site (in the article) to see some more recent pictures.