Guest Post – Review: Cantando Cello Ensemble: Lionel Wendt: July 2nd ’09

By Eshantha Peiris

D minor triad. Multiply by 13 unamplified cellos on the Lionel Wendt stage. Result: one of the most powerful openings to a live concert that I’ve ever experienced. The compositions of J.S. Bach have a knack for being readily adaptable to instruments for which they were not originally written: e.g. from pipe-organ to symphony orchestra (Stokowski), string-band to vocal-jazz-group (Swingle Singers), viola-da-gamba to electric-guitar (Malmsteen), and even apparently, from solo-violin to cello-ensemble. Although listening to the Cantando Cellos’ interpretation of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor from Violin Partita (arr. Laszlo Varga), I was not reminded of a lone fiddle; rather the constantly evolving multiple musical layers shared among the cellos served to create a truly hypnotic sonic landscape of their own (interrupted only occasionally by some very human tuning inaccuracies in the upper notes). Otherworldly music indeed. (no wonder NASA likes sending recordings of Bach on their probes to outer space…) And a fitting introduction to Cantando Cello Ensemble’s 5th annual concert, held on July 2nd.

Jazz-musicians and neuroscientists often marvel at how classical-instrumentalists can synchronize their playing without the aid of a steady beat or a cue-giving conductor. David Popper’s Suite showcased this phenomenon quite vividly, with the cello octet displaying a remarkable sense of group-coordination as they stylishly navigated through fluctuating moods and pulse. I presume they must have rehearsed a lot together.

As with most else on the program, Cesar Franck’s Sonata in A major (originally composed for violin and piano) was presented in an adapted format (featuring Dushy Perera, cello and guest musician Rohan de Silva, piano). I had forgotten what a musically sensitive pianist de Silva can be; the velvety tone he was able to extract from the piano in the first movement was rivaled only by a breathtakingly intuitive sense of ‘rubato’ melodic timing in the solo piano passages. There’s a reason the man is a pro. The second movement, while hectic, was less impressive, but fortunately the cello took over the challenge of driving this brilliant movement to a show-stopping close.

The narrative element of the concert really came to the forefront following the intermission: with the audience comfortably back in their seats (sans noisy cellophane cashew-nut wrappers), the ensemble was successful in immediately drawing the listeners back into the music with a magically quiet vibrato-less chord, before proceeding to conjure up vivid images of fertile landscapes (Dvorak: Largo from ‘New World Symphony’, arr. Lothar Niefind) and dancing skeletons (Saint-Saens: Danse Macabre, arr. Edward Laut). While the use of theatrical lighting cues is not typical of the classical concert format, it did occur to me that more could have been done with the stage-lighting to enhance the dramatic qualities of these two pieces. For future reference I would like to suggest that a music-score-reader be deployed in tandem with the lighting-engineer in order to maximize synchronization of lighting-effects and music.

A curiously witty arrangement of Mancini’s Pink Panther theme by Manilal Weerakoon was able to exploit the full textural vocabulary of the cellos (effects typically relegated to weird experimental music) in service of the musical humour inherent in this famous tune. However, in spite of a grooving walking-bass-line courtesy of Andrea Leitan (double-bass), the rest of the band didn’t quite seem to get the swing-feel required of this music (it felt a bit down-beat-oriented for my taste); but this is a problem with classical-musicians world-wide, so I can’t complain too much. Anyhow, this didn’t stop the audience (and the lighting engineer) from having a ball with this piece!

The excerpts from Bernstein’s West Side Story seem to have become a Cantando trademark, and it seems to sound better every time I hear them play it. With the chorus of Tonight being the ultimate melodic-vehicle for showcasing the ‘cantando’ (i.e. singing) capabilities of the cello, this potentially goose-bump-inducing refrain could have had a bit more support (i.e volume) from the pulsing rhythmic accompaniment, I thought. Bringing in a guest classical percussion player was a nice touch, and added some spice to the music; however I’d love to hear what kind of flavours a specialist Latin-percussionist would be able to bring to the same mix.

Overall, a highly enjoyable concert, now turning into a much-looked-forward-to annual event. Cantando Cello Ensemble must also be commended for maintaining a standard of quality musicianship and ensemble-playing, and in doing so providing a platform for the development of new talent on the local music front. We wish them many more fruitful years of music-making and look forward to hearing more new music from them in the future.

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